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

Two prior

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


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

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

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Practical skill = practical value.

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


Access to secrets – relocation.

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

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

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

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

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

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

for additional vocabularies:

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

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

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

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

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

starry band stretched


Folio 67v

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

The research question is framed as:

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

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

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.


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

[6th July – post shortened, by request]

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

from Buck to NSA at seminar 1976

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methods – Thematic research vs theory-focused. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the theory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quire 8 was- and quire 13 is a quinion.


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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll quote some of Rand’s commentary.

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

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

Manuscript 2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Naming a paradigm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of information so far.

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

Interim conclusions

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

What magic? Where magic? Imposition of the occult Pt2 -Newbold

Two previous posts:
Header image: (detail) MS Yates Thompson 13, f.68. Third quarter of the fourteenth century. A caption in Anglo-Norman French reads, ‘I begin the ladies’ game’.

Shortlink to this post.


What magic?

Although ‘natural philosophy’ may be taken by a modern writer* as a description of magical attitudes, that equation does not apply to the perceptions of people who lived in Latin Europe during the thirteenth- to fifteenth centuries.

*e.g. introductory sentences in Sébastien Moureau, ‘Physics in the twelfth century: the ‘Porta Elementorum’ of PseudoAvicenna’s alchemical “de anima” and Marius’ “de elementis”, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Age, Vol. 80 (2013), pp. 147-222.

Since we know now that MS Beinecke 408 cannot be an autograph by Roger Bacon, or even written to his direct dictation, so the revisionist is obliged to set aside not only the idea of the manuscript as a ‘Bacon autograph’ but also the string of  extrapolations derived from that premise – a premise based on nothing more than assessment of the materials and drawings as characteristic of the “third quarter of the thirteenth century” – as Wilfrid himself tells us. The rest was speculation on speculation.

Yet even now, when the ‘Bacon autograph’ idea has been ditched, many of the same extrapolations from it continue to be maintained by Voynich writers, including not just vague assertions of ‘magic’ but ideas developed without reference to the manuscript’s content. (For example the ‘European alchemy’ theory, which specialists in the history and imagery of western alchemical texts have dismissed already – but more of that in a  later post). 

In my opinion, the ‘occult’ notion is among those ‘Bacon ciphertext’ residues. I’ve yet to see it set forth in the usual way of scholarly argument, or even argued rather than asserted, or seen it supported by any material of the range and balance normally part of a reasoned argument from the body of material, historical and scholarly evidence to a conclusion.  

Full disclosure

The present author accidentally revived the ‘alchemy’ idea in 2011, after the opinion of a specialist and the radiocarbon dating had seen it ‘killed off’.  The revival was due to a post in which I was explaining the methodical design, and the subject of  one of the plant-drawings. My article never suggested that the ‘alchemy’ involved  was the highly elaborate and arcane style of European alchemists working the fifteenth century and later. Rather, I spoke of the double-gourd motif in that drawing as an allusion to distillation,  a motif and mnemonic added to the drawing of a plant which I did identify and whose only recorded use before the fifteenth century  had been in perfumery. I found no evidence of its having been employed at all in continental Europe, though the historical records of trade between east and west allow the possibility that, as well as importing the finished perfumes (manufactured from eastern plants in medieval Cairo during most of the medieval period), some centres in Sicily or in eastern Spain *may* have imported  raw ingredients for local manufacture. The trade in eastern plants as ‘spices’ is well-documented through the medieval centuries and shows especially good access into England for plants from as far as the south China sea. 
That plant identification in which I mentioned ‘alchemy’ as distillation was one of several dozen plant identifications which I made by recognising the consistently-applied informing system of the botanical drawings’ construction, and each observation was, as ever, tested against the historical record and cross-referenced against previous investigation of other sections in the manuscript. Where I found I could not offer a comprehensive explanation for a drawing, from lack of historical documentation or for any other reason, I did not attempt to offer it as an hypothetical one. I consider ‘guesses’  like superficial  picture-comparisons, unlikely to be of any positive  value and in fact a definite hindrance to the work of those labouring to understand the manuscript’s written text.   I do note that another Voynich writer then adopted the *idea* of perfumes and made an entire theory from it, one which I do not consider justified by the primary document.  The same is true of efforts made to imitate my exposition of the map while skewing the result to suit one or another variant of “all Latin European” hypothesis.
Of those subsequent efforts, but certainly not of my own, you may find acknowledgement of the author provided with matter taken up by Rene Zandbergen for inclusion in his website. Zandbergen’s attitude to others’ work has  in the past caused difficulties for my publisher and ultimately led to my shutting down from public readers all the research I had published online and to make no more available to researchers in that way.  I now regret having made any exception for posts here about the month-folios, even though I included only the barest minimum of titles from my research materials. 
Overall, however, my conclusion (supported as ever by the ordinary routine of testing against historical data, both documents and artefacts) was that a majority of the botanical drawings depict plants native to the maritime ‘silk routes’ and that images are constructed as ‘plant-groups’ defined by the constituent plants’ equivalent or complementary uses, the actual  ‘group’ depicted in each image being defined by terms for  ‘classes’ that are not the classes of modern botany, but which are attested in records of the medieval Yemen and in documents from the Cairo geniza. The article which mentioned ‘alchemy’ was of course presented with the most important of my primary and secondary scholarly sources too.
Knowing that my conclusions would be likely to cause uproar and outrage in the ‘Voynich community’ (as was indeed the case, since many could not understand what I meant by ‘conclusions of research’ and presumed that my commentaries were imaginative or hypothetical), I was glad to learn that John Tiltman had earlier sensed that some sort of ‘composite’ approach influenced the construction of at least some of the botanical images. 
Overall, after analysis and research into each of the sections in turn, and having completed the first analysis of the map (whose purpose until then had only elicited a couple of desultory comments in the history of this study),  was that the present manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) was compiled by meticulous copying of several distinct exemplars in which had been contained still older material, much of it Hellenistic in origin, though I gave it as my opinion before the radiocarbon dating was published that the nearest exemplars should be dated to about or before the mid-thirteenth century and to not later than c.1330.
I concluded, further, that the whole compilation as we have it in the fifteenth-century manuscript, constitutes a trader’s manual, though with the caveat that is not impossible  its description of the ‘ways east’ with routes and goods might have made the material useful to one of the missionary orders, among whom the most prominent order during the ‘Mongol century’ was the Franciscan order.
I do not find the idea impossible, then, that Roger Bacon might have owned one or more of the exemplars, but the possibility does not admit of proof, since I find nothing in the primary document to connect it or any of the contained matter directly to him.
While certain adherents of the  Prinke-Zandbergen ‘Germanic/central European’ theory have actively suppressed both research and researchers withholding their assent from it, I  remain more inclined to  Panofsky’s first assessment of the manuscript’s making, as  “Spain or somewhere southern”, though I do not deny the considerable evidence of Anglo-French influence in the manuscript’s late additions, exclusive of the post-production marginalia, because the latter  was then to be found throughout much of the coastal western Mediterranean. The historical picture is made more complex by the entanglements of peripatetic occupations, trade and of social and cultural dislocation which make simple definitions of ‘nationality’ historically inappropriate for the time.  One may, however, trace the link through the ‘Norman-Anglo-French’ areas from as far as the heel of Italy, including Sicily, then via the Italian peninsula, through France to as far as London in one direction by land and through the Mediterranean ports from Sicily through Spain to London and Antwerp or Bruges by sea. To this late phase of the content’s evolution I assign the month-folios’ central emblems, the inscription of the month-names, and certain other details.    Sailing north to Constantinople and the Black Sea and thence disembarking and travelling overland to as far as China was part of the great circular east-west ‘road’ and using the overland route was not as remarkable a feat as might be imagined, especially during the period of the ‘Pax mongolica’, though even then the proportion of Latins to other peoples was very small.  Contact was more usually through trading ports of the Black Sea and principally Caffa and Trebizond during the period of interest.
Constantinople is included, specifically, in the Voynich map but it is to what had once been the eastern limits of Alexander’s empire on those overland ‘high roads’ that I ascribe preservation of the Hellenistic material which forms the earliest chronological stratum displayed in drawings from some sections – primarily the astronomical and ‘ladies’ sections.  I should mention, too, that a number of people whose research interest was in the written text also looked to that same northern line, and to the same ‘Mongol’ period in discussing the probable language informing the manuscript’s written text.   Most of that research and/or opinion was  determinedly ‘eliminated’ from public conversations and forums, more often by sneer-smear campaigns and mindless, if catchy ‘memes’ than by careful and informed argument, and the work of those people is still consistently omitted or misrepresented in web-based accounts of the manuscript and what is believed about it. 
I hope in later posts to re-present for your consideration a few of those ‘dismissed’  opinions and studies, especially – but not only – when they were not just theoretical narratives but were supported by  evidence, data, and specialists’ opinion.

‘Bacon wrote it’

The ‘Bacon autograph’ idea should have been dismissed very early. Here is one of the few remaining samples of his hand, from his letter to Pope Clement IV, written in 1267.

script Letter Roger Bacon to Pope Clement

It can demand real effort for any Voynich researcher to keep focus firmly on the manuscript as the object of their study. The myriad will-o’-the wisps we call ‘Voynich theories’ are so much easier to understand than is the primary document and those published online are too often presented in a way aimed more at eliciting personal faith in the theorist than at setting fairly before the reader the precedents, documents and studies from which any historical and material theory about the object is normally expected to emerge.

“Just believe me” is the essence of the Wilfrid method.

In theory, of course it is possible that some part of the written text may one day be found to include ‘magical’ material or matter from one of Roger Bacon’s works – or indeed from any other text of any time or provenance up until 1440 – but to first assert an impression, and then focus solely on hunting circumstantial evidence for it is to neglect the fox for the rabbit. The aim of research should surely be the better understanding of this manuscript, not the public’s better understanding of an ‘idea’ spun about it.

Voynich studies is so plagued by that kind of ‘hare coursing’, and researchers so constantly distracted into hunting only for circumstantial support for one or another unfounded or ill-founded theory that (saving a few connected to the Beinecke library) scarcely a specialist in any relevant field will now let their name be associated with the manuscript, and those who have done in the past have often found the experience unpleasant. Theorists become over-attached to their visions of an imaginative past and a ‘theoretical’ version of the manuscript.

Wilfrid Voynich did not say that Roger Bacon practiced or wrote about magic, but his fantastic and undocumented ‘chain of ownership’ story, together with his impossible back-projection of seventeenth century Bohemian preoccupations onto a thirteenth-century English Franciscan friar had – and still has among the arch-traditionalists – a lasting influence.

Again – and still speaking generally – there is a good chance that the Voynich text contains something one might call ‘magical’, because scarcely a text produced anywhere in Europe or the wider Mediterranean before 1440 contains nothing that someone or other mightn’t regard as ‘magical thinking’.

Definitions of ‘magic’ vary and the word has been applied to everything from ordinary religious practices to classic necromancy. Perception of where a given item belongs in the spectrum of ‘not-magic’ to ‘really, really magic’ comes down to personal expectations – to when and where you happen to live.

As illustration – test your own reactions to these three objects:

As I mentioned in discussing a detail from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275 (here) it was initially left to the Church, in Europe, to arbitrate between acceptable and non-acceptable matter, but the medieval Church had no easy task either.

Assigning objects and practices their correct position on the spectrum between pious observance, poetic or spiritual sensibility, folk-superstition, simple investigation of natural phenomena, and ordinary ‘magic’ was always problematic and might alter with time and circumstance,* but one sort of magic was always forbidden – necromancy as the summoning of demons.

* Schmitt’s study of the cult of the ‘holy greyhound’ offers an excellent example. Jean-Claude Schmitt, The Holy Greyhound Guinefort, healer of children since the thirteenth century. (Cambridge Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 6) CUP (1983).

Attempting to call up demons to do one’s bidding was unequivocally condemned within European Christian culture. Some theologians argued that trying to do it was just stupid, because an impossiblity; others held that it was possible but utterly wicked.

In either case, by the mid-sixteenth century in England, Roger Bacon could be popularly imagined a true necromancer, as we’ve seen* though Bale himself published his correction, as effective retraction, within a decade.

*in the previous post

What magic? – Roger Bacon’s according to Newbold.


Bacon2 coinThough he includes the dread term ‘necromancer’ Newbold’s idea of Roger Bacon had Bacon’s   ‘magic’  benevolent, and the latter idea is attested as early as 1487. For readers’ convenience, I’ll cite  Molland for this well-known fact.

  • A.G. Molland, ‘Roger Bacon as Magician’, Traditio, Vol. 30 (1974), pp. 445-460. (pp.445-446)

Just so did Newbold describe Bacon’s studies, introducing the theme at one remove by quoting Bacon’s praise of a friend in a letter of 1267 to Pope Clement IV – the same that I’ve illustrated (supra). Bacon has his idea of ‘philosophy’ by literal translation from the Greek, to mean ‘a lover of all wisdom/know-how’ – in this case, know-how about natural materials and phenomena.

Studying suspect matter “only to sort the true from the wrong” is exactly the same rationale that would be offered, much later, by the Dominican order as they tried to shift perceptions of Friar Albertus of Lauingen from ‘Albertus magus‘ to ‘Albertus magnus‘ and by the seemingly simple step of having the Church formally proclaim Albertus a saint.

In fact, AlbertusAlbert of Lauingen magus magnus modern wood carving displays much more interest in magic and borderline alchemical theories than did his contemporary, Roger Bacon. He was also far more intellectually dishonest, much of what readers perceive as his original thought having been lifted, unacknowledged, from other scholars, as modern researchers have shown. 

image of Albertus of Lauringen (left) from online re-publication of the Catholic Encyclopaedia (1913). 

The Dominicans’ efforts included composition of two distinctly different biographies and still did not entirely convince. Though eventually beatified (1622), Albertus was not formally added to the list of saints until 1931.* His annual feast-day, now, is November 15th., and he is the patron saint of scientists, philosophers, medical technicians and all students of the natural sciences.

*which is why the biography in the Catholic encyclopaedia of 1913 calls him merely ‘blessed’.

Note – a patron saint is a person recognised as worthy of emulation by those in circumstances similar to those of the saint’s life. By the same token, it is assumed by believers that the saint will feel a reciprocal empathy for (e.g.) a student about to go into a science exam, and who may therefore be inclined to put in a good word ‘upstairs’ if asked to help the student remember his facts.  The general definition of a saint is someone whose soul certainly went ‘up’ rather than ‘down’ when they died.

I add just a couple of my references:

  • David J Collins, ‘Albertus, Magnus or Magus? Magic, Natural Philosophy, and Religious Reform in the Late Middle Ages’, Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-44.
  • Peter Grund, “Textual Alchemy: The Transformation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’s Semita Recta into the Mirror of Lights.” Ambix: The Journal for the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry 56(3): 202–225.

On the other hand, Thorndike says unequivocally that Bacon’s work does include magical matter, according to definitions current in his – Thorndike’s – time. I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Where magic?

To date, there has been no connection clearly established between MS Beinecke 408 and any ‘occult’ subject-matter, or any such text. The closest anyone has come was Nick Pelling, who drew attention to the fact that in a book by Okasha el Daly, an illustration from an eighteenth-century manuscript displays ‘Voynich’-style glyphs.

  • Okasha el Daly, Egyptology: The Missing Millennium. El Daly’s book was published by Cambridge University Press in 2008, and limited access is offered through Cambridge Core (here).

Otherwise – Nothing. Not in more than a hundred years..

Had the manuscript’s study followed a rational course, the ‘occult’ idea should have been abandoned at the very latest in 2011 when the ‘Bacon autograph ciphertext’ notion was proven untenable.

Before that time, the notion of ‘occult’ purpose was never a conclusion drawn from concerted research, but ultimately dependent on the internal logic of those two imaginative narratives of 1921. And the subsequent efforts to justify the idea have always been, at base, just versions of that ‘blame the author, not me’ response which for so long served as reflexive defence when over-confident individuals found themselves defeated by the manuscript’s pictorial- and/or written text.

Neither of the 1921 narratives does, and no subsequent writer ever did, demonstrate that the ‘occult content’ idea is justified by the primary source or any solid historical evidence or any Latin Christian text created before – or even after – 1440.

Acceptance of Newbold’s narrative relied on an idealised view of ‘Bacon-as-anticlerical-scientist’ already popular with the general public, especially in America. To this, an evocative backdrop was added, evoking an atmosphere of mystery and ‘forbidden’ knowledge. Notice how Newbold presented Bacon’s life and works for the Physicians of Philadelphia in April of 1921.

On Bacon’s knowledge of Hebrew, there is just one dedicated study, so far as I know.

  • Reviewed by L. D. Barnett in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Jan., 1903), pp. 334-336.
  • and see also Horst Weinstock, ‘Roger Bacon’s Polyglot Alphabets’, Florilegium Vol. 11 (1992) pp. 160-178.

Wilfrid and Newbold delivered their papers in April of 1921, by which time the popularist myth of Bacon as “persecuted scientist” – echoing a thesis promulgated by Draper and by White, but which had already been refuted years before – was “what everyone knew”. It was a consensus of popular myth and infuses both popular journalism and the work of some contemporary scholars (as for example, the introduction written by Roland and Hirsch in their publication referenced above).

  • [pdf] Walsh, James Joseph, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908.

But the refutation had less grip on the public imagination and the idea of the church as ‘scared of science’ would remain an underlying theme of Voynich writings into the present century.


Lynn ThorndikeAlready by June of 1921, with newspapers, journals and magazines advertising the Wilfrid-Newbold story and encouraging the proliferation of ancillary narratives,* Lynn Thorndike, who was then the eminent specialist in the history of European sciences and pseudo-sciences, attempted to return some level of reason to the clamour, but had little success.

*for which, see Jim Reeds’ Bibliography in the Cumulative Bibliography page.

His protests were evidently ignored in 1921 and the same stories were repeated through the thirties and the post-war period, and even throughout the period from 1952 when William Friedman effectively co-opted the study, and thus even to as late as 1978 when Mary d’Imperio produced ‘Elegant Enigma’.

I’ll consider that post-war period in the next post.

Meanwhile, here again is Thorndike’s letter to the editor of Scientific American in June 1921. This time I omit the formal compliment to the editor and add some paragraph spaces. Tellingly, Thorndike has already tried to stop a fiction that Roger Bacon invented gunpowder, and here he must focus on just one point as his target – so he ignores most of the nonsense to focus on the foundation for Wilfrid’s entire construction of narrative from conjecture and ‘logical’ inference: viz. the assertion that the manuscript is a ‘Bacon ciphertext’.

His letter has some other less obvious, but even more important implications, but I’ll leave that for the moment. In the meantime notice that while the passage which is cited from the ‘Wilfrid’ article speaks of the manuscript as being “with certainty dated to the 1300s”, is automatically corrected by Thorndike who knew that Roger Bacon had died some years before the ‘1300s’ began.

Certain measures 3b Preface – addendum

A reader has asked me to expand on a couple of points left obscure (as she says) in the previous post. I’m a bit reluctant to spend much time on this, because it deals only with medieval Latin imagery and culture – to which, in my opinion, the Voynich manuscript’s images bear little relation – but since this blog is intended to serve researchers, here we go.

The reader has asked that I explain more fully (a) the ‘cautionary’ tone that I find in the image from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275; (b) why I speculated that the black-shod figure might imply criticism of Albertus Magnus and finally (c) what makes me link these with that image from a copy of Nicole Oresme’s treatise [BNF 1355] first introduced to Voynicheros by Ellie Velinska.

Before going further, I want to be quite clear that I do not consider the image from Burney 275 which I showed in the previous post, or Ellie’s image from BNF 1355 have any direct relevance to material now in Beinecke MS 408.

What the two French medieval images have in common is a style, the makers’ visual codes, and a particular attitude to astronomical studies characteristic of certain works made for Latin Christians in late medieval France.

from Brit.Lib. Burney MS 275.

So – concerning my speculation that the black shod figure (in the detail above from Brit.Lib. MS Burney 275), with his hidden left arm, might be an allusion to Albertus Magnus, here’s what I added as a comment under the previous post.

Because it must be classed as speculation, I add as a comment that I suspect the ‘transgressing-a-bit’ figure, with its sinister hand in his sleeve, might be a Francophile’s allusion to Albertus Magnus. I add two easily accessible sources to indicate why this idea occurs and why I find this image reflects the same cautions which occur in a copy of Oresme’s text – itself older and strongly cautionary in tone despite its being about astronomical learning.
On the Paris universities’ attempt to restrict readings from Aristotle see e.g. the wiki article,
and on Albertus’ being earlier considered a bit dubious on the same matter see e.g.


There are, of course, many more and more detailed studies of this matter.


Denoting the non-orthodox.

To this I’d add that the same figure is represented by a conventional code for the dubious-to-heretical ruler or teacher, viz. ‘crossed-over limbs’.

This is no place to deliver a lecture on the history and uses of this item of visual code (where, when and by whom it was used) but I will offer another example of that usage, from a work that has not only been popular with straight-down-the line conservatives, but which actually does help elucidate one detail at least from the Voynich manuscript.

The well-known work is often called the ‘Manfredus Herbal’ (BNF Lat.6823) and its frontispiece(s) show, after the manner of late Roman and of Byzantine manuscripts, the best-known ‘names’ as authorities whose matter is contained within or widely associated with the subject matter.

While our view of how to depict classical characters and costumes differs considerably from the customs of medieval artisans, the reader must keep in mind that the medieval workers, like their audiences, were acutely conscious of costume as expressive of social and cultural distinctions, to the point we may describe depictions of clothing, bodily stance and more as elements in a common visual ‘code’ within a given cultural area.

Indeed, the analyst is wise to first interpret imagery [of costume in medieval Latin manuscripts] first as it contains ‘code’ and only then as literal depiction, though literalism is more common when the subject was a member of the European aristocracy. Something of this was touched on when discussing an image of C. Sergius Orata.

*see: https://voynichrevisionist.com/2019/09/12/the-skies-above-pt-5-bodies-in-baskets/

Here’s one page of portraits from the ‘Manfredus’ fronticepiece(s).

We’ll need to see some small details up close so the picture-file is large – I hope it won’t break your phone.

The two figures at the bottom of that page are Hippocrates (ypocras) and ‘Galienus’ – the latter an interesting evidence of contemporary confusion about Galen. As would later happen with the works of Ptolemy, we find an apparent confusion between the medical writer Galen, and Publius Licinius Egnatius Gallienus (co-emperor with his father Valerian from 253 to 260 AD and sole emperor from 260 to 268AD).

Note also that the works of this ‘Galienus’ are understood to be owned and taught – or at least preserved and translated – by Jewish scholars under western rule. Notice the ‘eastern eyes’ on that figure, and the sign of continuing use of the scroll, rather than the codex.

In the upper register, the figure to our left has his name erased, while the figure to our right has his name entirely omitted. Those who are acceptable (lower register) have their feet on the ground (proverbially and here graphically). Not all are Latins. In the upper register, though, the one who ‘transgresses’ a little is distinguished from the other who is considered both heretical and ‘inverted’ – or as we might say, has things totally back-to-front. The worst, by these marks, is obviously the one on the upper right, whom I managed to identify as ‘Johannitus’ thanks to the fact that most medieval scholars still memorised their texts and each of these figures speaks their incipit.

When first publishing this item from my Voynich research, I quoted the first sentences from ‘Johannitus’, and reproduce them here – in translation of course from his Isagogue.

Medicine is divided into two parts, namely, theory and practice. And of these, theory is further divided into three, that is to say the consideration of things that are natural, and of things that are non-natural (whence comes knowledge of health, disease, and the neutral state), and when these natural things depart from the course of nature – that is, when the four humours depart from the course of nature; and from what cause or symptoms disease may arise.

The Nestorian physician known to the west as ‘Johannitus’ was Hunayn ibn Ishâq (809-887), one of the Mesue dynasty of physicians that served as physicians to the Caliphs of Baghdad for generations.  Whether he ever wrote in Syriac, the liturgical language of the Church of the East (the so-called ‘Nestorian’ church) is not known, but some have made the mistake of supposing that anyone whose work appeared in Arabic was necessarily a Muslim, and this idea needs correction.

As Latin was the language of diplomacy, education and higher scholarship in western Christian Europe (so that we speak of ‘Latin Europe’), so throughout the Islamic empire, Arabic was the shared language. More – in Islamic scholarship, still, the custom was and is to call ‘an Arab’ anyone for whom Arabic is a primary language, written or spoken. So many have assumed that Hunayn was an Arab and a Muslim.

To add to the confusion, those noting that the way his name was rendered in Arabic indicates an original form meaning ‘John, son of Isaac’ imagined him a Christianised Jew.

It is easily forgotten today, but was not unknown to later medieval Europe that the Church of the East represented the original Christian church and existed from long before the rise of Islam being by the tenth century established from as far west as Constantinople and Egypt to as far east as China. Together with the ‘star-worshippers’ of Haran, the Nestorians (so called) are credited with having brought most works of classical science and scholarship to the knowledge of the first few generations of Muslim rulers, especially those in Baghdad. Part of their religious belief was that the Christian minister was expected to imitate Christ by ministering to body (medicine), mind (education) and soul (pastoral care). The western or ‘Roman’ tradition was strongly opposed to the first and the reason for Ficino’s being burned as a heretic was his becoming enamoured of that ‘ancient’ and original priesthood. This is the substance of his first (much misunderstood) legal defence. Canon law had initially accepted that the eastern church had chronological precedence and thus merited the description as ‘apostolic’. But by the time of Ficino’s second accusation, that argument was no longer enough. Ficino was a priest and was accused of practicing medicine. His own book proves that he had, and imitated specific recipes known to us from the ‘Nestorians’ Syriac Book of Medicines.

However – back to the main point.

Translation of Johannitus’ work into Latin is credited, by tradition, to a trader whose name on conversion to Christianity was Constantine, called ‘the African’, who brought with him from North Africa many medical texts, in Arabic copy, first to the court in Palermo (not Salerno) in Sicily.

He began translating the collection in Palermo, but soon passed on to the mainland, eventually to become a monk and end his days in Montecassino.

So the book being abjured according to this frontispiece to the Sicilan ‘Manfredus’ herbal is the Isagogue, some of whose content must have offended Sicily’s pluralistic society when it became known there. Among other things, Johannitus’ theory of the humors has it that all eye-colours save blue, and all hair-colours save yellow are the result of disease, or more exactly of humoral imbalance.

Selected excerpts from the Isagogue were still retained and taught but as with many such ‘dubious’ sources, maintained through collected extracts, in this case through a work called the Articella, and were further disguised by terming the whole of that collection “Greek” medicine.

Sicily was, and for centuries remained, far more culturally mixed and diverse than anywhere in western Europe and its Christianity stayed largely Byzantine well into the Norman period, making the word “Greek” a definition of orthodoxy. As usual, too, the frontispiece reflects western Christianity’s greater abhorrence towards other sects of Christianity than towards quite other religions. The ‘Manfredus’ herbal is dated by the BNF 1301-1350 AD. MS Burney 275 by the British Library 1309 and 1316 AD.

And you see how Johannitus’ ‘crossed limbs’ are depicted – with an improper amount of bare leg above the ankle. So we read ‘transgression’ for the figure on the upper left, but ‘heretic’ for Johannitus.

Not all historians make the link between ‘Johannitus’ and the Nestorian physicians. See e.g.

  • Behnam Dalfardi, Babak Daneshfard, Golnoush Sadat Mahmoudi Nezhad,  ‘Johannitius (809-873 AD), a medieval physician, translator and author’, Journal of Medical Biography, 2016 Aug;24(3):328-30. doi: 10.1177/0967772014532890. Epub 2014 Jun 9.

Connection between that image and Beinecke MS 408 is offered by the peculiar headwear given Johannitus, though apparently not quite understood by the painter, who has made a curl of hair from what appears to be a head-dress of horn. The validity of the underlying drawing is, however, confirmed for this same era, and again for peoples living in hither Asia, because a picture of Mongols’ captives shows it on them, together with dress that is typically Asian, and Mongol. It was not the custom, in Asian art, to encode images of costume, so we may take that image literally, and so too the dress seen in a late-stratum diagram (added to the back of the map) in the Voynich manuscript.

detail from Beinecke MS 408, folio 85v.

The Voynich detail shows that the ‘Nestorian’ figure (as we’ll call him for convenience) is used to mark the point of ‘east’; the diagram being a schematic representation of the world’s four quarters. Unlike most of the Voynich drawings, this one was almost certainly drawn by a European or, perhaps, an Armenian.

The motif upheld by the figure is not (as might first suggest itself to a modern viewer) a Norman or French ‘fleur de lys’ – as you’ll see if you make the necessary comparisons.

A truer match is the form given the tamgar for a certain Mongol ruler and while it has proven impossible so far to precisely identify a geographic reference for this ‘east’, the coins so adorned are fairly rare. Pace Kolbas, I’m strongly inclined to identify it with Amaligh and not Fars, though for reasons too many, and technical, to trouble readers with here.

Still, Kolbas is a numismatist and I’ll quote her again as I did in a post published in 2015 through voynichimagery.

On pages 149-150 of Judith Kolbas’ The Mongols in Iran: Chingiz Khan to Uljaytu 1220–1309)   we read:

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. [1253 AD] All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …

Almaligh produced money in 650 and 651H, and Bukhara and Samarquand issued large flat billon, probably in 651H. …. All of these inscriptions were similar to those of Bulghar and Tiflis, specifically in not having the name of the local dynast except in Fars. Instead, they had the great khan’s name and, except in Greater Khurasan and Transoxiana, his tamgha. In Fars, the imperial tamgha was artfully  drawn to resemble a graceful fleur de lys …To which I added – and still add – a demur

I add my original demur, too:

[this] ‘graceful fleur de lys’ is really a version of a much older Persian motif – and if it is the design Kolbas means this specific example [used in my illustration above] doesn’t appear to have been made for Fars, but more probably for Amaligh.

Other indications of eastern and Asian influence in the Voynich manuscript’s imagery certainly exist, some like this evidently first-hand and more at greater remove, but I’ve treated many in detail over the past years, and we must move on to the ‘Oresme’ issue.

Ellie Velinska’s comparison – BNF ms

Oresme (1328-82 AD) Which manuscript?

In 2014, in a blog now deleted, Ellie Velinska made a loose comparison of the image shown above with a detail from the Voynich manuscript, putting the two side by side without analytical commentary, leading readers to infer that only ‘common sense’ was needed to know what, if anything, might constitute a commonality between them.

Ellie’s chief interest was the Duc de Berry, and her Voynich theory was woven around that interest. If this sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t. For a person with no background or formal study of medieval imagery, her natural clarity of vision often made for interesting observations and flashes of insight, but the limited amount of time she had to spare for her hobby, as well as apparent ignorance of formal academic methods and standards, seemed often to see her at a loss to know, herself, just what to do with those observations, or how to test her own ideas against the historical record. But the same is true of the great majority of ‘Voynicheros’ online and Ellie’s pleasant and accommodating manner made her a very popular member of the self-styled online ‘Voynich community’.

Cross-checking my references today, I cannot think her original description of the source correct. My notes say she listed it as BNF 1355, but I rather think it was from

BNF fr.565, f.23r

Three years afterwards, and after properly citing Ellie’s post (as you can trust Pelling always to do), Pelling himself labeled a detail “BNF 565” (see further below).

The determined checker is welcome to go through all references to Oresme from the BNF’s Gallica portal.


Oresme was not yet Bishop of Lisieux when he composed his ‘Treatise on the Sphere’ but already had his Doctorate in Theology from the University of Paris and had been appointed Grand Master over the College of Navarre where he’d had his own undergraduate accommodation and tutoring.

His credentials suggest, and his writings confirm, that whatever Oresme wrote would be absolutely sound from any western theologians’ point of view, and indeed, his Treatise was meant as much for the king’s good Christian guidance as to provide him with a reference text about astronomical theory.

Like his earlier work entitled Livre de Divinations, the Treatise shows Oresme to have been well aware of other ideas and traditions, but as time went on his ‘orthodoxy’ or theological rectitude becomes as strongly in evidence as his erudition.

In his earlier writings, especially the Livre des Divinationes, he is is plain when criticising Jews and of Arabic-speakers for their indulging in ‘divination’ including astrological divination, and these are seen to be identical to what he terms “the astrologers” or “the scientists.” But as time goes on, Oresme omits any but generic allusions to those groups, and even as early as the Livre.. when he considers the information, and its source, likely to serve as temptation for the curious.

Nonetheless, it is clear that he knew matter not only just non-Christian like Aristotle, but which derives from traditional lore, and some items that today we’d normally suppose Kabbalist. Oresme livedwhile Kabbalist teaching was flourishing near the border between modern day France and Spain, some of that border belonging to the Kingdom of Majorca until 1375. Living in the College of Navarre, one may suppose Oresme was unusually well situated to learn about ideas current in the south.

Here as illustration, a passage in translation from his Livre…

That he dismisses such ideas as ‘speculation’ is added indication of a non-orthodox (non-Christian) source. Had that ‘throne’ been described Christ’s rather than Solomon’s, Oresme might still have set the matter aside, but not as “speculation”. It would have been called a matter to be apprehended only by the eyes of faith, and not appropriate for earthly studies such as philosophy or astronomy. Just the same message, at much the same time, and environment, as that detail seen in the previous post and illustrated first in the present one.


The cautions were evidently not always heeded by persons who wore a crown, and in that detail from BNF fr.565, f.23r (Ellie’s find, I think) the ‘doubtful’ characters are included, and are defined by the usual codes – headwear, clothing, posture, hair and facial hair or lack thereof.

I won’t provide any more detailed analytical commentary about it. This post is already longer than I’d like and the codes used in those images from fourteenth century France are not shared by the Voynich manuscript save in a very few details over no more than half a dozen folios.


Assimilating Aristotle and comparisons made to images in the Voynich manuscript.

Not so long before, only students of Theology had been permitted to read Aristotle at the University of Paris, the most desirable of all study-centres in those days unless you wanted to study medicine.

A degree in Theology was the highest and most demanding of the University degrees, since one had to know all other disciplines before admission into that Faculty. The reasoning here was not a new idea; it was that any authority which appeared to be incompatible with Christian doctrine and Biblical literature should not be taught verbatim to the uneducated, or even to the less educated, except it were provided with learned commentary which edited or ameliorated the ‘wrong’ by e.g. excusing pagan writers on the grounds that they had been permitted only a ‘dim’ apprehension of any truth, given that the fulness of truth had been vouchsafed to humankind only with the coming of Christ (as western Christianity believed).

By how much, and in what way they had fallen short, or where passages in older works were to be interpreted as allegorical and so on, was duly explained and/or the texts redacted or simply summarised by the theologians, with those acceptable summaries and extracts taught to the people.

In short, before the Italian renaissance, such ‘old works’ were treated like valuable but slightly out-of-date school texts today. Living exponents of unorthodox traditions were more sternly regarded, as we’ve seen.

That prohibition against Aristotle’s works didn’t apply beyond the University of Paris; It was not supported by any Papal pronouncement so far as I know, and even within the University of Paris didn’t last in practice more than (perhaps) three or four decades, but as mentioned earlier, it was serious enough that for a time the German Albertus (called ‘the great’) had been much exercised to defend his own, and others’ study of Aristotle.

One is usually told that Aristotle’s texts reached Europe from some long distance, and had to be especially translated at some royal court, but this isn’t necessarily so.

It is recorded by a Muslim military man at the time of the Muslim conquest of Sicily that he found the works of Aristotle being treated as if they were holy writ in Sicily, with readings aloud in the various niches within cathedral and the mummified body of that ‘saint’ suspended from the ceiling as its leading light. We don’t know what language they read it in, though Sicilian Greek is most probable and for reasons that can’t be fairly treated here, the practices as he reported them suggest connections to a ‘star-worshipping’ religion recorded in association with Haran and with north Africa and which was as old as, if not older, than Alexander the Great. Aristotle himself had died in 322BC.

When dealing with Oresme’s Treatise, then, it must be kept in mind that it was made – probably commissioned – of a person whose religious orthodoxy was beyond question, and whose use of Aristotle and other mathematical and scientific information could be regarded, by his authorship alone, as acceptable to any good western Christian – that is (as yet), a good Catholic.

Biographies that blur, or ignore, or misrepresent Oresme by calling him ‘a clergyman’ or which ‘politely’ omit reference to any medieval scholar’s religious views and/or standing ignore something that was an essential part of the person’s scholarly, as well as their personal character.

Ellie’s comparison was conveyed by inference, not argument or evidence, and appealed simply to her audience’s expectations of all-European content for the Voynich manuscript. Points of difference in form and all else were simply ignored but this is also usual in Voynich writings.

So when Pelling, who has a degree in modern historical studies, later revisited Ellie’s idea (naturally, with all due credit given), he omitted most of Ellie’s illustration, narrowing the whole tacit argument still further.

As I see it, the numerous points of difference are more telling than the few which are sort-of, more-or-less, similar. You will find no kings, no thrones, no flowing ermine robes, no kneeling suppliants, no armillary spheres, no ornate tapestry-pattern backgrounds in the Voynich manuscript and in neither the full Oresme illumination nor the small detail shown above is there the detail that I see as being the most telling of the Voynich diagram’s significance – I mean those eight curved ‘arms’ of which four are seen to emerge from the foreground and four apparently from below that visible surface ..

I think – I hope – that covers the three items I was asked to expand on.

Sorry about the length.

Skies above: Chronological Strata – Pt.1

Two previous:

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

In a later paper, Tiltman writes,:

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

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

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

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

Gian Francesco II Gonzaga

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

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


Transmission affect.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Naukratis see..

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


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


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

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

‘Light-‘ and ‘Heavy-‘ painter.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Central emblems

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

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

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

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

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

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

items from northe

Clothing –  dating and placing… 

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

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

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


…. to be continued…