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.

Elevated souls Pt 2a. ‘Astro —-‘

  • Header image: (left) stars of northern latitudes; (right) declination and right ascension  -image courtesy ‘Sky and Telescope’.

Previous two:


David Pingree

In 1982, the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes (Vol. 45) published the paper:

David Pingree,  ‘An Illustrated Greek Astronomical Manuscript. Commentary of Theon of Alexandria on the Handy Tables and Scholia and Other Writings of Ptolemy Concerning Them’.  ( pp. 185-192).

I begin by mentioning it for several reasons.

The late Prof. Pingree is one of the “two Davids” whose works are among those indispensable for study of what some pre-modern peoples knew about stars and – most pertinent to our chief study – how they thought about and imagined the heavens.

The ‘other David’ of the two is David A. King, whose works include the Ciphers of the Monks, in which King drew attention to the same Picard instrument whose orthography for month-names is – as I think Pelling first observed – closely similar to that of the Voynich month-names’.

Since the matter of  ‘Occitan month-names’ is among those affected by metaphorical ‘palimpsest-ing’,  I add more detail.

Writing in 2004, Shaun Palmer credits Stolfi with the proposal and (quite properly) notes that Pelling had come earlier than himself and independently to hold a similar view.  Pelling’s book (2006) then treated and illustrated the issue in  detail (pp. 21-23).  Those three  references should give you a clear idea of the evidence and substance behind this now-widely-accepted view.Searching for ‘Occitan’ today at voynich.nu I found the references given on this point to be an anonymous blogpost of 2012  and a note of thanks to Don Hoffman for providing Zandbergen with bibliographic details of King’s book. Following the principle that  “no acknowledgement asserts no debt”, readers might assume all  unprovenanced matter on that page (which is copyrighted  to  the owner as is every blogpost)  must be a result of the owner’s own research, crediting Zandbergen accordingly.

That paper by Pingree is chiefly concerned with the manuscript Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. (= 437). The ‘tables’ in question are known as  ‘Ptolemy’s Handy Tables’ but were compiled from Ptolemy’s data a century later, by Theon of Alexandria.  Researchers working on the Voynich manuscript might like to consider, in addition, matters associated with Ptolemy’s Geography, as balance for a tendency to associate Ptolemy solely with astrology, or even solely with astronomy. See e.g.

  • Dmitry Shcheglov, ‘Hipparchus’ Table of Climata and Ptolemy’s Geography’, (available through academia.edu)


Question 1: Is there Astrological matter in the month folios?

Caution Newcomers should be aware  that nothing in the manuscript has yet been proven related to any branch of occult or pseudo-scientific practice including that of astrology, though  speculation has been so common –  thanks initially to Wilfrid Voynich and his inflation of the ‘Rudolf rumour’ – that many imagine it has been proven beyond doubt.  Yet the stars are part of the natural world and natural, too, may be their observation and depiction.  To represent the theological position of the earlier medieval west, we may refer again to  Augustine:

Amiens Cathedral exterior: Virgo = Threshing               see   labours of the months.

Who can fail to perceive how great is the difference between useful observations of the heavenly bodies in connection with the weather, such as farmers or sailors make … and the vain hallucinations of men who observe the heavens not to know the weather. or their course … but merely to pry into the future ….

from Augustine’s Letters  55 15

  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers, Medieval Meteorology: Forecasting the Weather from Aristotle to the Almanac (2019)
why is the astrological  idea a problem?

Objection 1.  The idea’s introduction depended entirely on ideas about John Dee’s connection to the manuscript, in combination with consideration (only) of the month-names and central emblems from the month-folios.  The latter were taken to depict the ‘signs’ forming a tropical zodiac, rather than taken literally as a depiction of the physically-visible constellations which appear in sequence through the seasons of the year.  The conflation of constellation with astrological ‘sign’ is endemic in Voynich discussions, even today.  

Even if the emblems did constitute a representation of the zodiac ’12’ there is no necessary connection between their depiction and that aspect of mathematics which defined astrology in the medieval world.  In other words, there is no necessary connection between a depiction of the ecliptic constellations and tropical- or sidereal astrology.  

That the opposite idea should be so prevalent in Voynich writings today is due to the fact that most modern readers, living in an industrialised society and urban environment, don’t need to know the stars as people did in earlier times.   Today, we use clocks, watches and phones to know the time; we learn from the weather man what sort of weather we’ll have today; we rely on automatic or printed calendars to tell us where we are in the cycle of months and seasons.   Reflection from city lights, and nights spent indoors (or outdoors) under artificial lights means  many see none but a few of the brightest stars in the night sky.   And all this, together, means that the word ‘zodiac’ instantly evokes the motifs of ‘birth-signs’ and daily horoscopes for us today, and thus seems the ‘most obvious’ interpretation for any comparable series, especially if stars are depicted. 

 Thus, the constant error has been an imposition on a manuscript  six hundred years old, the hierarchy of ideas proper to twentieth- century urbanites.

Things were different six centuries ago.

Objection 2.  No  zodiac sequence contains (as the month-emblems do) two goats, or two sheep,  or a sheep and goat adjacent to one another.

This issue and others raised by the month-emblems are rarely even noticed today by Voynich writers. and of the few who do notice, fewer speak, and of the very few who do mention a problem, the majority do not address that problem so much as seek a way to turn back into the fold any who show signs of doubting that “its-a-zodiac-and-zodiac-means-astrology” proposition chain.    In private conversation a Voynichero once said that he didn’t include both pros and cons in his own writings  because “if your mind is too open, your brains fall out” – which sounds to me like some conservative slogan gone wrong. 🙂

Objection 3. Even if we grant that,  in adding the month-names later, the person who did that truly  believed  the emblems represented constellations from the zodiac, more cannot be deduced from it than  he had  regarded the series as a series of months and their stars.  It is no support for an idea that  “months+stars means astrology”.  

Objection 4. is that the the Voynich series names only  ten months, and the months omitted (January and February) are – perhaps coincidentally or perhaps not –  the months when the fields were dormant, and when  ships of the Mediterranean stayed in harbour. The ‘sailing year’ ran from March until (nominally) November but the historical records show that in fact ships of the harbours where the most competent seamen were based might continue  sailing coast wise even as late as December.

Other points:

  • An argument that the remnants of two cut pages following  the month-diagrams  had once contained two more diagrams of that sort is – like theorised astrological purpose – only speculation at present. 
  • As I’ve explained elsewhere, correlations of month-name, month-marking constellation, and associated ‘labour’ were not uniform  even within Latin Europe., and the correlations made in the month-diagrams between emblem and month-name are not those of the northern latitudes (England, Germany and northern France).
  •   When responding to a Voyichero’s query,  Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow – whose area is given as the history of European art, especially its traditions of astrological imagery-  also mentioned calendars in connection with the month-diagrams’ central emblems.  Here the difficulty is that her opinion was a short note written in response to a Voynichero’s query and it appears she was given no indication there was any reason to doubt that the content in this manuscript might have any but a medieval Latin European origin.  The answer of an expert is typically provided within the framework of the question posed.  Not knowing that explains why William Friedman got so little from Panofsky, where Anne Nill had received so much more  – and we’re not talking word-count here.
  • Nor do we know what Sniezynska-Stolot was shown of the manuscript at the time (2000), or whether in colour or copy-flo.   As translated by  Rafel Prinke and  reported in Reeds’ mailing list, her note has a distinctly off-hand tone.

By  13 Jan 2001 her note’s content was already reported to Reeds’ mailing list and members were discussing it in  connection with specific problems of the kind no longer acknowledged as existing by the most conservative faction and whose discussion is thereby discouraged, with ‘blanking’ from the record of any non-conservative who might do so. 

Still – let’s move on to one possible hint of the astrological… and trust our brains won’t fall out. 🙂

Astrological versus (purely) Astronomical

Exaltation and Depression?

Consider the following pair  from the first of the ‘April’ diagrams (folio 70v-ii), keeping in mind that the fifteenth-century draughtsman could draw ‘nicely’  but for reasons as yet unclear, didn’t wish to.  What message are we to take from their presentation? What aspects are we supposed to  read as meaningful? What about their postures, for example?


Did the original maker  intend the male  figure is to be read as ‘elevated’/’exalted’ and the female as ‘dejected’ or dismayed?   Or are our  subjective reactions focusing on details he would have dismissed as irrelevant?

If he meant attention paid to their posture, we must realise that such terms as ‘elevation’, ‘exaltation {Gk. ὕψωμα]  and ‘dejection/depression’ [Gk. ταπείνωμα] were used technically of the planets in Byzantine astrology, while  “seldom, if ever, found in the West” -as Pingree observes, though he finds that their illustration  in  Ambrosianus H. 57. sup is drawn ‘in western style’.

Indeed, the draughtsman’s style may be western, but it has  little in common with that of the person who drew the unclothed figures in the Voynich month-folios, except perhaps a common implication (also found in certain Islamic texts) that when figures from polytheistic religions are presented, the images should express moral censure. (see further, below) I say ‘perhaps’ because we have no proof thus far that the Voynich figures were intended as deities or anything of the sort. Neither have I seen any argument which proves that  the Voynich manuscript depicts any of the five planets, let alone all of them.

*The planets proper, the ‘wandering stars’, included only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn in medieval times.

re planets…2001

In 2001, a member of the first (Reeds’) mailing list responded to Robert Firth’s comment on the fact that the ‘celestial’ folios hadn’t served as key to the written text as many hoped they might,  by saying  that “we” ‘ ..have quite a number of good (even if not dead certain) [identifications]:- the Pleiades and Aldebaran; – the seven planets; – two sets of twelve labels in 12-segmented circles; – one (or two?) set of 28 segments, “obviously” indicating the mansions of the moon. (12 Jan 2001).  All members of that list, at the time, would have known which of them had contributed each item, with what evidence and what argument (if any) but as yet I don’t know. If you can enlighten me on the point, please do. I’ve seen nothing one could call a cogent argument for it between 2008 and today.

detail) Milan, Ambrosianus H.57.sup. f.112v. Venus – on which see Pingree (1982) p.32

The unclothed pagan deities for each planet are depicted with a certain censure in the Ambrosianus manuscript  –  e.g. Venus (right) is depicted as as a debauchee – given the face of a young and pretty woman but a body heavy, old and exhausted from bearing children by various fathers. I see little obvious similarity between the draughtman’s style and that in the Voynich month-folios.  Expressions of moral censure in depiction of figures from polytheistic religions are  also seen in some Islamic works, notably in the  ‘Book of Marvels’ ‘Kitab al Bulhan’ (MS. Bodl. Or. 133) a seventeenth-century work (or copy) where Voynich-like “glyphs” were also inscribed.

That-last point was initially brought to notice by – I believe  – by Nick Pelling in his review (2008) of Okasha El Daly’s book. A detail (‘Crab’) from the same Bodley ms was later considered by one Voynich blogger whose blog I cannot find online today. In two posts of 2013 the present writer commented on several of  images from that manuscript, together with  other examples of ‘Voynich-like’ glyphs.

An image posted to pininterest by Marco Ponzi associates a detail from the Bodleian ms with one on folio 67v 2. His commentary may appear elsewhere but I’m not willing to join that site to find out.  (Again, if anyone already has more detail, I’d be happy to include it in the comments section below this post.)

On the Greek astrological terms and their significance see e.g.

  • Roger Beck, (2008) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology, pp. 57-8
  • Roger Beck, (2017) A Brief History of Ancient Astrology  pp. 242ff.
  • Chris Brennan, Hellenistic Astrology: The Study of Fate and Fortune.
  • James Evans. Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity (p.135). Evans’ equating ‘Chaldean’ with ‘Babylonian’ is over-confident.
  • Tamysn Barton,  Ancient Astrology (2002).

Neither  Aratus/Cicero’s Aratea, nor Manilius’ Astronomica  (written  c.30–40 AD) makes use of the planets, a point to be kept in mind given the date for Vat.gr. 1291 and possible  pre-Christian (but anti-Greek? anti-polytheist?) origin for its ‘women of an hour’ (see previous post).

Manilius in the west

Goold believed that before his election to Pope, Gerbert d’Aurillac had found in Bobbio a copy of Manilius’ Astronomica bound (as Gerbert said) with a copy of Boethius’ text on mathematics. Other scholars have doubted this, attributing the west’s knowledge of that text (as we have it) to Poggio Bracciolini’s practice of  commandeer manuscripts from monastic libraries by his position as papal secretary.  The ‘discoveries’ were then copied (at a price) for members of the Italian literati, who appreciated Poggio’s ‘little arm’. His own view is recorded in one colophon, which translated reads “This oration, formerly lost owing to the fault of the times, Poggio restored to the Latin-speaking world and brought it back to Italy, having found it hidden [sic] in Gaul, in the woods of Langres.” If he had acquired it from Bèze abbey, that copy is unlikely to have been older than the 11th-12thC.

Again with the older period in mind, and possible bridges between  pre-Christian astronomical works and the early fifteenth century when the Voynich manuscript was made, I’ll add here part of the description of Niceforous’ visit to Cyprus in the fourteenth century.  There was still a Lusignan ruler in the island, one who with his chief scholar George Lapithes asked the noble visitor from Constantinople to summarise for them as many astronomical texts as they could gather. They brought him copies of Ptolemy’s works, including the  Tetrabiblos, called Ἀποτελεσματικά ετράβιβλος in the Greek – but also,  according to  Niceforous (I quote from another paper by Pingree):

“all the books that still existed composed about such matters, by Ptolemy’s predecessors and by more recent authors as well as those that had been written in antiquity and by the  Chaldaeans and the Persians”. 

  • George Lapithes and David Pingree, The Byzantine Version of the “Toledan Tables”: The Work of George Lapithes?’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 30 (1976), pp. 85+87-132.

Pingree offers evidence and argument for a/the Greek translation of the Toledan Tables’  in Cyprus during the first half of the fourteenth century, to which same period, as it happens, I assign their ‘return to the Mediterranean’ phase for  the majority of parts in the Voynich manuscript.

Ambrosiana H.57. sup. – evolution 2ndC AD – c.1458..

Claudius Ptolemy lived in the 2ndC AD.  Theon of Alexandria in the 3rdC AD.   So then, discussing the content in the Amrbosiana manuscript, Pingree tells us:

We may conclude, then, that the original [i.e. the Ambrosiana] manuscript was copied in 1358, and that a series of owners for the next century added to it, rearranged it, and annotated it. It is likely that the manuscript was copied in Byzantium, and remained there while these changes and additions were being made to it. There is no absolute proof for this supposition in the manuscript itself, but it is known that the texts in Ambrosianus H. 57. sup. were copied in part from Laurentianus 28, 7;3 and that manuscript can be shown to be Constantinopolitan. (Pingree, op.cit. p.186)


There is no doubt, on the evidence of the script, that the codex could have been written in Constantinople in 1357-58. It is in the style associated with the Hodegoi scriptorium over a period of about half a century.  Western connexions of this scriptorium are not apparent. If they existed they would be more likely at this time to have been with Venice than with Southern Italy.   (ibid. p.192)

.. yet when it comes to those miniatures …(emphasis is mine)

The consensus of opinion is that the style of the miniatures is basically Western, though with an admixture of Byzantine elements. Islamic tradition lies behind the curious iconography, in which the planets are shown with their day- and night-houses, exaltations and dejections: this is seldom, if ever, found in the West. No immediate model has been located in an admittedly cursory search. An artist active in Southern Italy or Sicily may be indicated by the mixture of Italian and French styles. It is not impossible that an artist of, say, the Neapolitan school was working in Constantinople in the mid-fourteenth century – a time when others (Barlaam of Seminara, for example) travelled freely between that city and Italy. No artist answering to this description can, however, be securely documented in Constantinople at this time. Nor can it be assumed that the manuscript was decorated in the same place as it was written: the illustrations may be later additions. Indeed, they look very much as if they are.    (ibid. p.192)


For those who managed to come so far   –  here’s the sweet….

B. Astronomical?

Returning to the pair on folio 70v-ii, a closer look at the female figure…Short-ish hair, large head, figure’s right side drawn with a swelling line, indicating a breast. But where the figure’s left breast would be, there’s only what appears to be a piece of skin, marked with lines evoking sutures or something of that kind. Obviously not a skin-graft  (skin-grafting, history of)

We have a word for females who display just one breast. It’s from the Greek: a- (ἀ-) which means lacking and mazos (μαζός), which means breast   ..so, …”without breast”= Amazon.

Classical Greek and Roman imagery doesn’t depict Amazons  lacking a breast. They show a figure who is usually short-haired,  sometimes in armour which can include a breast-cover, or with only one breast covered by clothing and/or armour.

Interestingly, on fol. 70v-ii, the breastplate has been understood by the draughtsman to be of the high-collared type. The two images (at right) are shown simply to demonstrate that high-collared breastplates,  for females, are not entirely unattested.  An amazonian caryatid in Dresden wears armour very similar in deign to the Keralan type. That caryatid is described (by a seller of prints) as  ‘an ancient wall sculpture’. I can only say that their definition of ‘ancient’ is unusual.

The Keralan tradition marks by such means one of the eight chief patron- ‘mother’ goddesses, known to be warrior-women when necessary.

To this day women archers may don a breast cover in addition to the cover always provided for the forearm by the long, skin-tight sleeve and/or by a wrist-guard which might be better called a forearm-guard (but isn’t).  These were traditionally made of thick leather; The present day Olympian (below) wears ones of modern materials.

When you consider that women in pre-Renaissance Europe didn’t normally ever handle a bow, and that  the two drawings in the lower register were made  two thousand years apart from each other, the conceptual image informing the physical image per se has evidently survived remarkably well. The fifteenth-century draughtsman understood his exemplar.


So now – which star(s) if any might have been identified as  ‘Amazon’ by any tradition of star-lore, at any time between the 5thC BC and 15thC AD? Here are two possibilities from the Greco-Latin-Arab traditions with which I think readers will be most familiar.


  1. alpha [α] Virginis (Lat.Spica) ?

According to the 15thC Yemeni, Ibn Majid, the star α Virginis serves as the manzil (lunar station/mansion) and in that context is known as Simak al A’zal, ‘warrior without a spear’ (Tibbett’s translation p.100). And the figure from the first April diagram certainly has none.  However, women of the Arab tribes in Arabia, and more particularly of the Yemen, appear from the early accounts to have been treated more on par with men and in the pre-Islamic period to have been decidedly martial. By comparing with both older and early medieval works, it appears that until the seventh century AD, α Virginis may  have been often envisaged as a female warrior, one who roared or howled in the attack.   As Virgo, she is still armed in an image within the 9thC Byzantine manuscript Vat.gr.1291.

9thC Greek  (prob. from a late classical source)

A star-ceiling made in Egypt under the patronage of the Roman emperor Tiberius in 50BC, shows Virgo holding a ‘spike’ staff of some kind. The image shown here (below, right) is  as illustrated by Wallace Budge.

1stC BC. image in late-Hellenistic Dendera. If the spike is papyrus, the use of palm and scroll as alternative is understandable.

While Virgo’s spike-star  was generally envisaged as a stalk or sheaf of wheat for most of the Latin period, the alternative tradition was not forgotten, and the late image seen below shows how it was preserved – as a martyr-like palm branch held delicately by a more passive and ladylike virgin angel.

So if this is the intention behind the ‘Amazon’ on folio 70v-ii, her being without a weapon may be due to the same cultural attitudes (not necessarily Arab) which sees  the ‘ladies of an hour’ drawn with arms deprived of strength in Vat.gr.1291 folio 9r- as we also see   in the month-folios of the Vms.


In both instances, the informing ideas appear to me  indicative of deep-seated belief that the stars had effective power to harm and I doubt such fear derives from the classical Greeks or from the Orthodox Christians of ninth-century Constantinople. That Vat.gr.1291  has drawn on ideologically opposed traditions is evident if one compares the charming figure for Virgo in the ‘helios’ diagram (folio 9r) with the frankly unnerving and skeltal ‘ghost’ which is one of the few figures un-erased from the same manuscript’s planispheric ‘night sky’. (right)

So let’s return to the charming Virgo.  Unlike her counterpart on folio 23r of that manuscript, hers is not  the stocky body we associate with Europe’s late Roman art. She is envisaged as a slender and elegant messenger, whose ‘spike’  now appears more like rolled scroll. (angelos means ‘messenger’.)

This may be a good moment to remind readers that Alain Touwaide said the Voynich manuscript’s appearance suggested to him the sort of Byzantine hospital workers’ notebooks called iatrosophia, though it wasn’t one.

Touwaide has studied such manuals within his wider area of specialisation, and among his publications  is

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Byzantine Hospital Manuals (Iatrosophia) as a Source for the Study of Therapeutics’, in Barbara S. Bowers (ed.), The Medieval Hospital and Medical Practice  pp.147-173 of Vol. 3 of AVISTA Studies in the History of Medieval Technology, Science and Art, (2007).

I agree that in the  Vms, we have a compilation of matter brought together for an entirely practical purpose, and find it possible the ‘bringing together’ may have occurred in comparable circumstances, and even within the Byzantine sphere, but having already treated in detail a large proportion of the Vms’ imagery,  I am glad that I am not in the unenviable position of having to differ from Professor Touwaide on the ‘practical handbook’ issue, or the ‘compilation’ issue, though I should have been obliged, unhappily, to do so had he said the whole was a work of medicine, or even of astrological medicine.

  • at the moment I can’t refer you to the printed version of Touwaide’s Voynich talk (or, rather first Voynich talk) at Mondragone.  The book is unobtainable, and Stephen Bax’ site where it had been shortly reviewed is presently infected by some virus.  Maybe later.

2. gamma [γ] Orionis.

Hinkley Allen informs us that in  “the Alfonsine tables” (no version or copy is specified) the star γ Orionis has a previously-unattested name, as  Bellatrix – a term from Latin and which means again, a female warrior.

Note – Ptolemy’s Tables, Alfonsine or Toledan Tables in Voynich studies

I was surprised to find no mention of any of these tables in Voynich writings or chats until speculations about occult topics had taken been current for about ninety years.

One would have thought an examination of standard sources for astronomical knowledge would be tested first before resort was had to speculation, but things went the other way.  Perhaps, yet again, we must attribute this oddness in the study first to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale, and a feeling among some that support for the ‘Rudolf’ idea had to marshalled.   However that may be, even today (Nov.2019), I find no mention of the Toledan tables at Nick Pelling’s site, or at voynich.nu.  I believe there was some talk of them in comments to Stephen Bax’ site, but at present it is under ‘virus interdiction’. I hope to check it and properly credit anyone who posted there if/when the site and its comments return.

Otherwise, I have found nothing about the Alfonsine or Tioledan tables (do let me know if you know better) until 2002 (ninety years after Voynich acquired the manuscript), when Luis Vélez’ says in  Reeds’ mailing list (Tue, 16 Jul 2002):

Thus, students of medicine at Bologna… learnt astrology [sic.] for four years, including grounding in Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s Almagest. In addition, they learnt how to use instruments such as the astrolabe and the quadrant, and were taught how to use the Alfonsine Tables along with their canons. ..


Hinkley-Allen suggests ‘Bellatix’  was gained by mis-translation of an Arabic term, ‘roaring lion’.  I should have been inclined to dismiss this altogether, as mere transposition of some term for a star in Virgo – except that it survives experiment extremely well.  Experiment involves cultural and specific context, in addition to the image’s individual characteristics and drawing-style.

As you see, where the chap looks quite upbeat, the female looks decidedly “down”, doesn’t she?

Those interested in the written part of the Voynich manuscript might care to research uses for the opposition between elevation/exultation and subjection/ being downcast as applied by older works to matters other than planetary dispositions.

And with these two feasible identifications, mentioned  I’ll leave the astronomical and astrological possibilities for you to think about, except a last note that in another place, according to Tibbett’s note, al ibn Majid identifies Bellatrix with Orion’s hand [lit. Yad al Jauza’, usually Betelgeuse],  and it is in connection with this passage that Majid relates a condensed ‘cipher’ mnemonic for some fairly technical and mathematical matter.

Should it be of interest to any reader, description of that ‘cipher-mnemonic’ runs from the last paragraph on p.87 to the end of the first paragraph on f.88 in Tibbett’s English translation..

Postscript: From the research into historical and cultural context – I think one topic should have been mentioned, viz. the Indian tradition.  Thus, our Bellatrix (γ Orionis) is still recorded as ‘Yad al Jawzã’ al-Yusrã’ on astrolabes made in Lahore by a ‘dynasty’ of astrolabe makers in the sixteenth- and early seventeenth centuries.

  • see e.g. Mubashir ul-Haq Abbasi and Sreeramula Raeswars Sarma, ‘An Astrolabe by Muḥammad Muqīm of Lahore Dated 1047 AH (1637-38 CE)’, Islamic Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 2014), pp. 37-65

In the same context, the ‘serpentine’ extension behind Betelgeuse may allude to the ‘Ketu’ (headless body) of Rahu Ketu in Tamil and Hindu astronomy.  The sources differ considerably and I don’t want to give an impression that I place much importance on it.)

Also, we know that the Indian and Muslim traditions were both still present in Iberia during the fourteenth century, as Chabas and Goldstein (among others) have said:

quote stars Jews Spain astronomical tables 14thC Indian trad


I had meant to now talk about chorography, and identifications of stars with places – not by astrology but by an older system of observation and  a mythos of locality.. as well as by nominal superimposition of  celestial and terrestrial co-ordinates (made easier in medieval times if one had an astrolabe).

I would have begun from the classical sources’ identification of Amazon lands, by Herodotus and later authors, illustrated by a couple of maps, and then moved on to the technical correlations for star-and-place as well as the various astrological equations of peoples and regions …. coins, legends, Manilius, Dorothea of Sidon etc., remarks on Genoa’s colonies in the Black Sea (from c.1290s to the time the Plague came..) and so, eventually,  to Ptolemy’s co-ordinates.

But this post is already a trying length, almost 4,700 words, so I’ll leave all that material from my logs aside, except to say the Voynich ‘strings’ may bind place and star.

The star-place correspondence system has to be conceptual or temporary because the vernal equinox moves, as the first minute of right ascension doesn’t.  Then there are also the eastern navigator’s “fetterings” but …alas.. who’d ever read so much?

At least you have some sources for this last and  far from unimportant section.

edit (6th December 2019).

Can’t get the ‘comments’ to include this image, so here it is. Proof of relevance to c.1420.  See second of the comments following this post.