O’Donovan notes #12.3 the merlon thing. The mapping exercise.

c.2700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Update, .

Koen has been in touch, and explained that the project was open collaboration, any forum-members who cared to do so contributing information and pictures they found and these, naturally enough, depended on each member’s decisions about where to look for examples. The map which results is thus a map of those contributions, and indirectly a reflection of members’ areas of interest. At the same time, my impression is that Koen would still welcome a broader data-base. If you care to contribute, but disinclined to have to join an online forum to do it, you might leave a comment under Koen’s blogpost of 2021. [here].

16th March 2023.


Researchers whose attention is focused on the written text in Beinecke MS 408 are looking for single finite answer to what is commonly assumed a ciphertext. I hope I do them no injustice in saying that for most, scientific method is closely associated with statistical analysis, and in recent years we have seen images mapped as data points in an effort to apply forms of frequency analysis.

“Scientific” statistics.

Where in earlier years, the habit among those without specific training in reading pre-modern images was to claim it needed nothing but subjective interpretation and commonsense, or that historical arguments could be made by doing no more than presenting paired images as ‘matches’.

More recently, we have seen some effort made to reduce the treatment of drawings to a kind of statistical analysis which, though not particularly appropriate as methodology seems to be regarded as more efficient than studying the history of art and its methodologies, as if mapping ‘data points’ is by definition more scientific.

Few of us now leave school without learning that any science experiment begins by clearly stating the aim of that experiment. Then by itemising the specimens or samples to be tested. In labs one then describes the method, or at least details of the ISO and Standard Method(s) being applied.

Science students soon learn that if sample-collection is biased; if the methods employed are inappropriate; even if one or more samples are wrongly identified or if the technician is careless in applying standard methods, they still end up with a statistical result but the question posed will not have been answered nor any hypothesis rightly tested.

J.K. Petersen

So far as I’m aware, the first person to try creating distribution-maps for images from Beinecke MS 408 was the Voynichero known only as ‘JK Petersen’. His efforts were hampered by his having evidently little background in medieval history, codicology, or palaeography and none in the history of art or the analytical methods best suited to addressing problematic drawings. His dedication to the ‘all-western-Christian-Germanic-central European’ vision was undisguised and was reflected in his research parameters and thus in his range of processed data.

On the other hand, even within his narrow research-parameters, his work turned up images that certainly assisted others, simply because he introduced so many. I believe he was the first to refer to that French Franciscan manual’s ‘November crocodile’ which assisted our own investigation of the Voynich calendar. What they didn’t and couldn’t do was to prove the manuscript a German product.

Koen and the Lobsters.

Koen Gheuns applied a more nuanced version of that method to clarify one path of dissemination for the ‘lobsters’ in the Voynich calendar, although (perhaps depending on the Warburg database?), he believed the type originated with Michael Scot’s work in twelfth-century Italy and Sicily.

From that point Koen moved forward through northern France to Alsace and to examples seen in images produced from Diebold Lauber’s workshop.

Our subsequent study here complemented Koen’s work by enquiring what precedent works might have influenced Scot’s conception of the Cancer lobsters. We focused on England where Scot received his early education, and France where he received his higher education, as well as southern Spain where he worked for some time and Sicily-southern-Italy where Scot worked in the Sicilian court and where the core copies of his texts were made and first preserved.

Once again, the presence of an effort at data-mapping proved a useful resource, even if it did not prove what the makers believed their statistical-geographic maps proved.

Koen et al. and swallowtails.

Koen Gheuens next approached the topic of ‘swallowtail’ merlons but it is characteristic of Koen’s thoughtful approach that, unlike ‘JKP’ , he began by stating clearly the aim of his latest experiment. His question was “Where were images of swallowtail merlons produced before 1450?”. This was limited by his further aim to more clearly define what is implied when sources speak of ‘swallowtail’ merlons as characteristic of northern Italy. He wanted more clarity on ‘northern Italy’.

The end result was that his research-parameters reduced in practice to “Where, within western Europe, do we find drawings or paintings showing buildings with swallowtail battlements?”

His tacit argument seems to be that wherever we find the most extant instances of such drawings or paintings, that is the most likely place to have seen the origin of this detail in one roundel of the Voynich map (often described as the ‘rosettes page’).

Whether the experiment did – or even could – point to where the Voynich manuscript was made is the question we consider in this post.

As Koen said, in his post of 2021, he had intended to limit the experiment to images in manuscripts and other forms of art. It was a sensible and well-informed decision, but in the event because working with a group he agreed to add a layer marking extant buildings on which ‘swallowtails’ of any type can be seen today.

As a result, the number of data points was greatly increased; the architectural (red) dots largely obscured the iconographic results, and the overall weighting shifted. (see maps further below)

I have tried to contact Koen, first to ask his permission to reproduce his map, and then to ask if he could send a comparison from which the red dots were absent, but so far I’ve been unable to reach him.

Koen assumes that a representation of ‘swallowtail’ merlons will serve as a cultural marker and thus narrow the range in which we might suppose the Voynich manuscript was made. His post of 2021 does not appear to distinguish provenance for the manuscript’s manufacture from provenancing contents.

If it could be shown that, prior to 1440, none but northern Italian draughtsmen created drawings that included swallowtail merlons, or rendered them in wood-carving, relief carvings, mosaics and so on, the chances would be good that the draughtsman who put them on the structure drawn in the map’s north roundel had been a native of northern Italy, or had gained his training there.

But even then, it would be just a fair chance. At the very least one would have to show that all the stylistic details in the map – or in that one roundel – find counterparts in works first created in northern Italy.

And even if the draughtsman had been native to northern Italy, it would not alone tell us where he was when the drawing was first given its form, or when that happened.

Numerous non-Latins travelled in Europe and members of various Italian city-states travelled abroad. Before 1440, we know, some were to be found resident around the Black Sea, in Egypt, central Asia, southern Iraq, Iran and southern China.

I’ll say again – provenancing the manuscript-as-object is work proper to codicologists and palaeographers. Provenancing content is a separate matter – and more exactly, a range of separate matters.

Koen’s range of samples accords with his stated aim of clarifying ‘northern Italian’ in connection with drawings of swallowtail merlons, but the finished map could suggest a certain bias in the sampling. Could – not necessarily does. The reason is poor documentation.

The reader is left uncertain whether the absence of examples from England, France, most of Spain, and the Adriatic (apart from Venice) means that efforts to find examples in those regions returned a null result, or whether the research parameters were so narrowly defined from the outset that those regions were ignored? If the study intended to clarify ‘northern Italian’ it’s understandable, but in that case why include manuscripts from Barcelona and Naples? Was the research heavily dependent, perhaps, on libraries having a large number of their manuscripts digitised?

Koen explained clearly the difficulties involved in adding architectural structures to the data, and in my opinion his initial plan to omit structures was wise, but working as part of a team means compromise. The red dots now swamp the map, and in some cases (such as Genoa), the structures included do not have pre-1440 merlons no matter how energetically civic pride might insist the nineteenth-century reconstructions were historically accurate.

Further difficulties arise because the specimens/data are not labelled, or not labelled accurately in the legend, so that readers are left without any idea of whether the cluster over Milan is the result of a single atelier’s work over, say, 1440-1450, or whether they represent manuscripts made there between 1200-1450. Those placed on Venice may, for all we know, contain a text closely related to that of Naples or Barcelona. Specimen-labelling is basic to any scientific experiment.

Below is a close-up of northern Italy. The whole of Koen’s map can be seen through the link (HERE) which he, and later Peter M., provided.

While this post was in draft, Peter M. directed me to the latest version but it seems little has changed since 2021.

So what does the map tell us?

Not very much. For non-manuscript paintings (the blue dots) none but location details are provided and for the manuscripts (black dots) all the usual information is omitted.

It is impossible, therefore, to determine whether – for example – what we see as blue dots through central Italy is the result of a single painter’s wanderings, or whether due to dissemination of a particular text, or text-type, or the motif’s popularity and transmission within a certain sector of society, such as the intermarrying nobility or a particular religious order.

We cannot follow the chronology for dissemination in manuscripts, since none is identifiable: date, title, holding library and shelf-number are all omitted.

Red Dots.

Koen was perfectly right to urge caution about the overlay of those red dots. Even specialists in military architecture, and archaeologists working in the field are cautious when it comes to assertions about present-day examples of swallowtail merlons.

Even specialists in the history of these forms may have difficulty determining whether some are, or are not authentic reconstructions. I may be mistaken but to the best of my knowledge no original swallowtail merlons are extant in Genoa despite the protests of civic pride that the nineteenth-century rebuilds are authentic reconstructions.

It is true, as in the case of these Genoese merlons (above) that some closely reproduce an early form of such merlons. it is evident from the merlon’s height – able to cover a standing archer – and from the inclusion of slits through which the enemy might be observed and an arrow fired. Nonetheless, the merlons we see today date to the nineteenth-century.

Thanks to a Peter M., who quotes a source he describes as Castle Association and Architecture in the Middle Ages, I can say that before 1450 AD

*The swallowtail pinnacle (merlon) is unknown in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.

*North of the Alps, there are none [no structures with swallowtail merlons?] before 1500.

*From about 1540, castles [north of the Alps??] began to use the dovetailed battlements as a fashionable design. In most cases, even the architect is known.

Context and Significance.

It is understandable that for Voynicheros whose background is in the pragmatic sciences mapping ‘data-points’ might seem a logical way to produce or support any statistical argument, but that expectation is misapplied when it comes to reading and understanding the intention behind a pre-modern picture.

In the same way, people more accustomed to subjects using binary logic have a habit of assuming a division of all images into the literal versus the ‘decorative’, or the meaningful versus the non-meaningful and the same ideas are seen in descriptions of where and why swallowtails were used.

In the critical sciences, data mapping has to involve informed qualitative judgements and more than superficial knowledge of historical periods, documents and cultural attitudes.

Just as counting the number of jars in a medical store-cupboard, and mapping where each stands will not make a doctor of you, so simple data-point maps cannot alone explain he origin, date or intention of any among the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.

The factor most often overlooked is that of perceived significance: in this case what significance the various types of swallowtail merlons had for persons who commissioned, made, copied or regarded a given image in a given social environment and historical moment.

We know that, for a time, one or more types of swallowtail signified ‘the imperial party’. Were the mapped examples found chiefly in cities granted independent status by, say Frederick II, or are they perhaps more often seen in lands that were under the direct control of a western emperor when an image was made? Is the usage dependent a given city’s current political alignment or, perhaps, the leanings of a specific patron? Was a given instance intended to elicit negative or positive response?

Koen’s enthusiasm in 2021 led him to overstatement in his summary, for he wrote:

“The neat thing about this map is that we know for sure that the VM belongs on it as a data point among the blue markers”.

Why should we suppose that for the original maker, those merlons were any more definitive than the square-topped merlons, or more important than the starry spiral, or the various topographic elements? And those are all just in the map’s north roundel. Are any attested in the mapped manuscripts or paintings and if so which?

What lends Koen’s results more weight is that a number of quite independent researchers came to similar conclusions about a focus on the region around, or otherwise connected to Milan, where Koen’s map records the greatest number of manuscripts containing images with swallowtail merlons.

Milan is where Pelling’s historical research, combined with his studies of ciphers, codicology and palaeography, finally led him by 2005-6.

I’ve also concluded, in regard to the Voynich map, that we are most likely to owe its present form to a collaboration of Jews and Genoese, attested not only in Genoa but in Constantinople, Caffa and the Balearics.

Where to from here?

That work done by Koen Gheuens and his friends is not wasted. It should prove very helpful to anyone investigating questions of textual and iconographic transmission in those parts of medieval Latin Europe.

What the map cannot do is tell us where and when Beinecke MS 408 was produced. Establishing a manuscript’s date and place of manufacture is the work of palaeographers and codicologists.

Provenancing content is something else again.

Other questions: Merli, Rook, Rukh.

Etymologies should be taken with a little salt on the side of your plate, to be taken as needed.

For the term ‘merlon’ an etymological dictionary has:

The term merlon comes from the French language, adapted from the Italian merlone, possibly a shortened form of mergola, connected to Latin mergae (pitchfork), or from a diminutive moerulus, from murus or moerus (a wall). An alternative etymology suggests that the medieval Latin merulus (mentioned from the end of the 10th century) functioned as a diminutive of Latin merle, “blackbird”, expressing an image of this bird sitting on a wall.

Let’s start with that tenth century usage, which saw the walls ‘merli’ as blackbirds. Later, in English, the tower-birds, and the chesspiece both became ‘rooks’.

The nineteenth-century etymologists’ well-known disdain for languages other than Latin, Greek and the Germanic group often leaves them blank- when faced with terms gained from Celtic, Hebrew, Egyptian or Berber. In this case the word they cannot see is well known in Hebrew as in Persian – as ruach in Hebrew (esp. Genesis 1:2) and as rukh in Persian.

When working through the Voynich map, section by section and detail by detail, hunting out examples in art and architecture and commentaries in older sources, one chicken-and-egg problem nagged at me.

‘Did the chess-piece inspire the merlons, or did such merlons inspire the form given that chesspiece?’

I scarcely mentioned that part of the research in the summaries published through Voynichimagery, but I’ve decided to write up a little more now for any readers who feel impelled to follow a thread to the heart of an historical maze. That will be in the next post in a couple of weeks’ time.

Until then, here is one detail from a mid-fourteenth manuscript to think about.

The manuscript was made in Persia very shortly before the Plague arose and thus only a very few years before, in France, the ‘November crocodile’ was drawn in grisaille in that Franciscan missal.

As you see, here the rook (Persian rukh) maintains the same form it had in the eleventh century when the chess-players mosaic was made in Piacenza.

Notice in this illustration the hats with stiff, back-turned brims, too, and the garment fastened under the right arm.

Also, from a drawing placed on the back of the Voynich map

a high-collared version..

O’Donovan notes #12.2 – The merlons thing (cont.) Provenancing.

c.1700 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

Part 1 in the current series includes a link to one of Koen Gheuens’ blogposts. If you followed that link you’ll appreciate Koen’s generosity in sharing the work that he and some other members of a Voynich forum were doing.

I meant this post to be about that work and why its approach is exceptional, but because an important point is how their approach differs from most, I think it may be useful to introduce it by considering the problem of provenance-research.

Ever since 1912, Voynich writers have continually confused one kind of provenancing for another, apparently because they did not pause to think through their aims in those terms.

Provenance just means “Where it came from”; the problem arises because of how “it” is assumed defined.

Provenance-research can be divided into three kinds, the first being research into how a finished, or nearly finished object has travelled from where and when it was made to where it is now.

This can be described as ‘chain-of-ownership’ provenance, or – because is primarily associated with descriptions provided by librarians, curators and sellers of artefacts – as ‘Catalogue’ provenance.

That sort of research starts from the time the artefact was manufactured, and ends with the latest acquisition. So in a sense its terminus a quo is finite, but its terminus ad quem indefinite.

Catalogue-style provenance.

The quality of that kind of provenance research can be judged by how severely factual the description is.

To illustrate a near-perfect example of Catalogue Provenance, I’ve chosen that written for a manuscript whose text is written entirely in Tironian shorthand. You will notice that the following description meticulously quotes and dates on palaeographic grounds every post-production inscription (marginalia).

Page from a ninth-century Psalter.

Provenance: [1] A scriptorium in Northeastern France: suggested by the script (according to Bischoff, Katalog (2004), p. 93 (no. 2356)). [2] The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Remi at Rheims: its ownership inscription and book curse added to f. 1r in a 10th- or 11th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii qui eum abstulerit anatema sit’; its ownership inscription added to f. 1v and f. 33v in a 13th- or 14th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii Remensis vol VIIxx et V’; the manuscript is listed as no. ‘CXLV’ in an early 13th-century manuscript catalogue from its library (see Dolbeau, ‘Un catalogue fragmentaire’ (1988), p. 215). [3] An unknown 19th-century French owner: added a description of the manuscript in French on f. 101 recto. [4] Thomas Thorpe (b. 1791, d. 1851), London bookseller: [5] purchased from him by the British Museum in August 1832 (see note on f. [iv] verso).

*numerals in square brackets by the present author.

It would obviously be an error to try provenancing the original manuscript by its marginalia, yet in Voynich studies we regularly see efforts made to create a story for the whole manuscript’s content, and for its place and date of manufacture, from no more than a couple of lines of undated marginalia. That’s one of the things which makes Voynich writings seem so very odd to the wider world of manuscript studies. It’s just a wrong way to go about things.

One reason Voynich studies sees such curious habits as attempting to use marginalia to provenance both ownership and subject-matter, is that when interest in the manuscript was revived in the 1990s, the little book written by Mary d’Imperio was adopted as an easy-to-read ‘bible’ by a number of amateurs, many of whom had no prior acquaintance with medieval studies, historical studies, palaeography, codicology or the technical aspects of art history. The same had been true of William Friedman.

Even before Jim Reeds’ ceased managing the first Voynich mailing list, an idea was gaining ground that provenancing the manuscript was a matter of getting an ‘idea’ and then attempting find ways to persuade others to believe that idea plausible. When a television program was made focussing on legends and various theories, the habit of story-telling was reinforced. The people interviewed were not codiocologists or palaeographers, or specialists in medieval history, but persons who had read d’Imperio and who had a novel theory of their own.

You may read a dozens of equally inventive theoretical Voynich narratives today, but it is rare to find any which do not conflate Catalogue provenance with one form or another of Contents provenance.

On the one hand, Catalogue provenance begins with the object’s manufacture and moves forward in time, tracing the hand-to-hand passage of the object from when it was made until now. On the other hand, Contents provenance involves tracking back from the time of manufacture to discover how the text(s), images and materials came to be at last in the place where they came together to make the object/manuscript in question.

So Contents provenance ends at the point where Catalogue provenance begins.

Wilfrid Voynich was the first to conflate the two when he guessed the manuscript made in thirteenth century England, and then relied on nothing but his imagination to assert the whole content of the manuscript created in thirteenth century England, and then interpreted all the contents in terms of what he imagined that thirteenth-century Englishman, Roger Bacon, would write about.

Provenancing Contents

Provenance of this sort rightly asks, “How did these materials and contents come to be employed in the making of this artefact?

Research of this sort, if you think about it, must require require research-parameters and informing sources rather different from those of catalogue-provenance research.

Consider the range, geographic and temporal, needed to get the right answer to such questions as ‘Who composed the Psalter?’ or ‘Who is the King David alleged to have composed some, or all of the Psalter’s contents?’ or ‘What is the origin of the script used in this ninth-century Psalter?’

Provenance research has not been widely understood by Voynich writers since 1912, but chiefly because few stopped to think through their aims in those terms.

Point of View – the drawings

It really doesn’t matter what the modern-day viewer finds easy to understand about pre-modern art. What matters is how the first person to give that image form, and the person who put it in the present manuscript thought, and how they expected their drawing would be understood by their contemporary audience.

For that, it is nonsense to imagine that the modern viewer can pick and choose ad.lib. which images or details they will consider important. If it were true, as it is not, that you can identify the ‘important’ details because (to quote a real Voynich meme) they will be “the most specific and unambiguous” then you’d say the most important detail in this image of King David was his fleur-de-lys crown! But the crown is not unambiguous – you certainly cannot take it to signify that there was ever a King David on the throne of France, or that a French, or indeed an English, king wrote the Psalms.

and so again to the Merlons.

King David. Castile 15th.C

Just as King David lived in c.1000 BC on the other side of the Mediterranean but might be pictured in late medieval western Christian art with a crown as sign of ‘royalty’, and the crown appear variously as one of French-, English-, German-, Persian-, Byzantine- or Spanish type, or with the maker’s idea of a ‘foreign-looking’ crown, so too a structure whose walls had no merlons, or had merlons of some other kind, might still be drawn with those which Voynich writers call ‘swallowtails” and others describe as the Sicilian-Valle d’Aosta type,

Another common error has been to imagine that every drawing is a drawing from life. Yet another has been to imagine that if we find a motif in a manuscript, it is necessarily something copied from some other manuscript.

If we were attempting to research the ‘swallowtail’ motif(s) lineage in art as it might relate to the Voynich map’s examples, we should have to begin from the manuscript’s early fifteenth century date and follow the motif back in time, across a much broader geographic range than is needed to describe the chain-of-ownership and the range of sources and media would have to be broader than Voynich-related writings or only medieval manuscripts.

What Koen Gheuens and his friends did was to carefully frame their question in terms of a specific aim: as he puts it, to discover where, within the Latin west, examples survive of drawings in which merlons are drawn as ‘swallowtails’.

It’s a perfectly reasonable aspect of Content research.

Were the question a broader one, examples would have to be sought in manuscripts and in various other media from the time the first instance of the flat sort of ‘swallowtail’ merlons are attested – round about the eleventh century – until the Voynich manuscript’s date (c.1405-1438).

In that case, the examples would certainly include the next image, though found in mosaic. Dated to the eleventh century, it comes from Piacenza, a town that has cropped up several times in relation to Beinecke MS 408, and first in Reeds’ comments on the Voynich ‘gallows glyphs’ (so called). In this blog, we’ve referred to Piacenza in discussing the assignment of month-to-emblem in the Voynich calendar.

A black ‘swallowtail’ rook is seen in the lower-left hand corner.

Piacenza lies in a region that by now will be fairly familiar to regular readers.

Koen’s post carefully explains too that (a) he had not intended to include extant buildings and (b) swallowtail merlons seen on castles today were not necessarily present, or present in that form, during the fifteenth century.

He was wise to make that point.

The nineteenth century’s ‘Gothic’ revival saw various forms of merlon added to older and to contemporary structures but even examples asserted accurate reconstructions can be problematic.

Take Piacenza’s Palazzi Communale, popularly known as the Palazzo Gotico. The building, or a good part of it, was certainly standing in the thirteenth century, but like most medieval buildings, its architectural history is complex. The Italian wiki [HERE] should provide food for thought.


The subject of Tironian notes has been raised often in Voynich studies. See for example d’Imperio’s The Voynich Manuscript: an Elegant Enigma, and entries to the first (Reeds’) mailing list, Pelling’s book of 2006 or his blog ciphermysteries… for a start.

O’Donovan notes 12.1: The Merlons thing.

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

First, let’s put that detail into physical perspective.

From the Yale facsimile edition, we find that the entire Voynich map measures, overall near enough to 420 mm square. That’s 16.5 inches each side.

Within that map, the roundel containing the detail of interest measures close to 100mm (3.9 inches)

Within that, the structure given crenellations measures just 30mm by 45mm (1.2 x 1.8 inches).

.. for reasons I’ve never seen explained, it’s a habit among Voynich writers to omit or truncate the flanking arcs, thus reducing the detail to the size of an ordinary postage-stamp – about 25mm (1 inch) square.

That’s about the length of your thumb’s top joint. Try taking your finest pen and reproducing it there some day when you’re bored at work. 🙂

What does this tell us about this detail-in-a-detail-in-a drawing?

First, that given the physical constraints on the draughtsman, this detail isn’t likely to be a detailed and literal portrait of any single structure or location, simply because the scale precludes inclusion of enough details to clearly distinguish one structure from all others of similar form within a purely literal genre.

The same constraints tell us that for a given place or location to be clearly identifiable, some of what is included should be there for its resonance in terms of medieval iconographic forms: that is for its existing symbolic or metaphorical hooks.

To put this another way, the constraints imposed by the available space mean that the structure must serve as token for that place and while some elements may indeed be literal, others will not or may not be so.

Consider the difference between what you would produce if asked to present a literal portrait of your local place of worship, as distinct from marking it on a map. In the first place you would need to add far more detail to show the ways in which it differs from all other churches built in the same architectural style, but in the second case, you might just draw one of these:

or you might use a more literal-looking token, detailed only enough that a visitor will connect your drawing to a local building when she or she comes across it – even though the drawing is in no sense a literal ‘portrait’. Like this:

The idea of a ‘token’ image embraces the purely symbolic and the merely generic.

A token can include some literal details (such as the rose window, if your local building has one), but omits all non-essentials and can even include non-literal details – your local building may not have a cross on its door, for example. As you see, this drawing doesn’t show whether the building is made of stone, of brick, of stucco or of wood, which a literal portrait would have to do.

Given the very limited space assigned this detail in the Voynich map, our default assumption (pending other evidence) must be that for the first maker of this detail, each item he did include here had no less weight and importance than any other, regardless of whether one item is drawn in a way generic, symbolic or literal.

It is irrelevant that one or another of the inclusions springs more readily to a modern eye; it is quite as much a mistake to ignore the form of the central tower or the subsidiary towers or the square merlons as the fishtails.

So then, to the degree that the drawing must necessarily be reduced to whatever the maker considered essential elements, what we have is a token, but one hopes a significant token, for the intended place.

For the moment we set aside the various theories which have the Voynich map a description of some poetic, theological or other set of ways. We’ll start from an initial position that the map is not of some otherworld and see how we go.

Given a combination of an intention to communicate information of some kind, and the constrained space available, we now consider each of those features the first maker considered distinctive – even definitive – and suppose further (for the time being) that the place indicated did exist to so late as c.1440.

The structure is placed between two great curving ‘walls’ though it isn’t immediately clear whether those are meant for topographic or for man-made forms. Certainly no defensive walls would be found extending across the lowest point of a very narrow and very steep river valley – a moment’s thought will show you why.

At the front we see a great entry-way opening directly onto what is shown (by a fairly-well known convention in late medieval cartography) as a waterway, shallow and having only one opening. Today we don’t conceive of the Mediterranean as a large shallow ‘bay’, but evidently that’s how the maker viewed it and in fact that’s exactly what the Mediterranean is. By comparison with the open ocean, the Mediterranean is shallow and it does have only one natural opening to the deep sea, through the straits of Gibraltar.

So, without presuming which elements in the Voynich detail convey information by literal depiction and which by symbolic value, consider the remaining items included.

The enclosed area is drawn about twice as wide as it is deep. It is enclosed on three sides by walls.

Inside those walls is drawn nothing but one great tower, apparently round since two others which are square are found outside the back wall and are clearly shown so.

That central tower is evidently distinctive in having three storeys (assuming one window-token equals one storey). The roof is tall and conical, but seems to sit within the tower’s upper edge, which suggests that between the tower proper and the roof is an upper parapet or walkway.

Behind the rear wall, there is placed to our left one of those square towers and this has its top coloured blue, the same pigment used to colour an adjacent area. Where that ends, to the right, is a second square extramural tower, this having its top coloured yellow.

We may suggest, then, that perhaps here the blue is used to denote water, so the front entryway is a water-gate and the tower to the left, outside the walls is a water-tower. If that is what the maker intended, then perhaps the lines of blue which we see following along the top of those curving flanks could indicate aqueducts of the sort so often seen in Roman-era settlements, especially in the near east. But, on the other hand, those lines may only indicate some natural descent of fresh water down steep hillsides. No need to decide yet which the maker intended. The analysis is still in its early stages.

As we look for sites fulfilling our criteria so far, the nature of the less easily discerned will serve as a test for each possible identification.

And now at last we come to the merlons.

There are at least two, and possibly three forms of merlon shown on these walls – the ordinary square merlons and what might be described as two forms of fishtail merlons or, perhaps, an attempt to draw twice the same form of fishtail merlons, but whatever the case, the form given those across the front appear different from those seen on the right side of the rear wall.

As you’ll see (further below) there wasn’t just one form of fishtail merlon, but of course the difference may again be due to the scale at which the draughtsman was obliged to work.

Since we don’t yet know when the drawing was first enunciated, so even if we date our present copy 1405-1438, some effort will be needed to determine by research which elements are employed for their symbolic information and which are more nearly literal within this token. Nor can be even guess, as yet, whether the intended place and structures remained standing beyond 1440 AD, even if they existed to that time.

A common and very typical error in Voynich studies is to begin by assuming that one can identify the place by adopting Mary d’Imperio’s suggestion that its resembled a castle, and then start collecting photographs of such examples of castles having fishtail merlons as exist today, without doing any deeper investigation of the date to which such merlons are dated – in fact many examples seen in Europe today are the result of romantic nineteenth-century ‘renovations’.

Merlons – geographic range.

Merlons of various kinds, including the fishtail type are attested during the medieval centuries from as far north as the Black Sea to as far south as Egypt, and from Asia Minor to western Europe. Some are attested by contemporary writings, some by relics in near-ruins, others by what little still remains in structures often destroyed and re-built since those times.

These facts are well-known to historians and to students of military architecture, and have been reprised and documented often enough in contributions to Voynich studies, that there is really very little excuse one can offer, in 2023, for such misleading assertions as – and I quote:

The swallowtail merlons on the Rosettes** castle and city walls tie the manuscript to southern-German or northern-Italian contexts.

The term ‘context’ avoids saying ‘locations’ while implying it; the substitution provides a loophole, so that in future the theorist can claim the assertion applies to any time when any southern German or northern Italian may have been in any place – including the Black Sea, or Egypt, or somewhere in between such as Constantinople.

But asserting that the type is tied to southern Germany and northern Italy is easily disproven and here again, the work has already been done and more than once since 2010. If readers find no reference to the earlier contributions or to these Sicilian precedents shown below (again) it may be because those researchers have relied too heavily on specifically Voynich-related sites rather than turning to external and more impartial [non-wiki] sources.

The following three images all show buildings in Sicily, and all having their merlons in original style(s), according to our best current information. The first example dates to the tenth century and it is said the merlons which had crumbled over time were accurately repaired; the second example is dated to the twelfth century; the third to the thirteenth century, from which time we see such forms first used by the Franco-Savoyard Challant family* in the Valle d’Aosta, west of Milan.

*They built the famous Fénis castle, among others, and it remained in the possession of the Fénis branch of the lords of Challant until 1716.

Notice the varied forms given these older fishtail merlons in Sicily.

TENTH CENTURY: This part of the tower dates to the period of Arab rule in Sicily (i.e. from 902AD). Before that time, the island had been part of the Byzantine empire. It was gradually re-taken by Christian forces and freebooters in numerous battles between 999 and 1139AD. The Latins who finally took it decided to keep it rather than returning it to the Byzantine emperor, although Byzantine and Arab influence remained strong in the island to the end of the 13thC.
c. TWELFTH Century.
THIRTEENTH CENTURY – Palazzo Corvaja, Taormina.

Nick Pelling’s historical research led him to made a fair case for the present manuscript’s having been made in, or near Milan.

He did begin by expecting all the content would be the original composition of single Latin Christian author who had lived contemporary with the present manuscript’s manufacture. This was in keeping with most theoretical Voynich narratives to that time (2006)

Unlike the creators of many other Voynich narratives, Pelling adopted standard scholarly ethics and used accepted methods, while taking pains to consider the codicological evidence and, as best he could, to date and describe the manuscript’s palaeography. All this in addition to attempting to explain the whole work in the light of his studies of late medieval cryptology.

Pelling was (so far as I know) the first among the Reeds’ list generation of Voynich writers to pay attention to the implications of the script’s “4o” form, while being chiefly interested in its presence in some early fifteenth-century Milanese ciphers.

Pelling read the Voynich map as a city-plan or city-scape rather than a map in any narrower sense.

Unlike many other creators of variants on the traditionalist narrative, Pelling laid out for his readers the course of his own research. He gathered and then presented and cited honestly the full range of precedents and sources he found; he explained his reasoning and the data used to inform that reasoning. He was prepared – within limits – to debate his own findings as few later traditionalists would do, and as some have never done. Even more in keeping with the better type of scholarship, Pelling himself published comments and responses made to his work – the positive and the negative, both. This sort of open-intelligence attitude attracted so many researchers that to just one of the posts listed below he received more than 600 comments.

Pelling represents the last flicker of that energetic, co-operative and actively debating atmosphere which initially gave the first mailing list under Reeds such energy and which led rapidly to numerous new insights still being re-discovered by those living in the present ‘groundhog day’ fog. Thereafter the rise of a ‘believe my theory or else’ and degradation of ethics and standards in the online arenas saw debate and any honest engagement with informed dissent constantly discouraged or disdained by the more ambitious theorists until today one finds little activity of that kind in any Voynich arena.

Whether any of the Voynich research published since 2006 has moved Pelling’s own opinions on any point, I cannot say. It is something which readers must discover for themselves.

Below are linked two of Pelling’s earlier posts. one about the larger drawing and the other about the detail presently of interest, I add a link to a post made by Koen Gheuens in 2017 and, because it tracks the history of this particular ‘groundhog day’, a post made for this blog about 18 months ago. Perhaps after that discussion of Pelling’s contributions to the study I should add that he and I differ on a great many points, especially those invoking one or other of the manuscript’s drawings. 🙂

more on the backstory in an earlier post at this blog:

  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Swallowtailsvoynichrevisionist (October 8th., 2021)

In the next post, we’ll move from surviving examples in Sicily to those which begin to appear from about the 13thC in the Franco-Savoyard Valle d’Aosta.

The Valle d’Aosta is not on the Venetian side of Italy, but in an area which will have become familiar to any readers who laboured through our analyses of the calendar’s ‘July’ and ‘November’ emblems. That is, a region between Milan-Genoa and adjacent to regions in which forms of Occitan were spoken during the middle ages – including Genoa. In the map detail shown below, the marker for Valle d’Aosta is seen slightly left of centre at the top of the image.

Valle d’Aosta in the mountains west of Milan, above the Lombardy plain.