O’Donovan notes. Calendar 7b – Old Ideas and Good Ideas.

2500 words.

The author’s rights are asserted

Introduction: I have already written that promised post about a certain calendar and Oxford, Bodleian Douce 313), but the amount of background information which that discussion needed made the post impossibly long, so here are sections pulled from it and which provide a little of the historical context needed to make sense of what will now follow in the next post.

Some of the material concerns attitudes to new knowledge in Europe during the time of Michael Scot and Roger Bacon. Some concerns the back-story for ideas first offered about the Voynich calendar in Jim Reeds’ mailing list but which have never yet been formally presented or tested by the people who raised them there.

If what follows has a common theme, it is how people react to new information, especially to the arrival of new and better information from a community whose ways of thought differ from those most familiar and comfortable for the recipients.

The new math

Little more than a century after Michael Scot’s death, we find him depicted in Italy as the archetypal negromancer and heretic. We are shown a figure dark of visage, dressed in what looks like a woman’s pink dress, with dark curly locks and long nose. He is shown ripping pages from some book, indifferent to Dominic’s exposition of the Truth – towards which almost all others, including foreigners, display awe and deference.

What this tells us is that Scot was already, so early, identified as a practitioner of the black arts – making it all the more remarkable that the ‘lobster’ type for Cancer, a type widely used at that time, should have come to be attributed by recent scholars to Michael Scot’s writings in particular, rather than just to England and France where he had gained his education.

Nothaft refers to one monk, a contemporary of Roger Bacon Michael Scot (1175-1232), and who had clearly mastered the new ‘Arab’ learning as it related to computus. His name was Cunestabulus, and being instructed to give an account of that foreign matter, cries aloud and most emphatically that he only records such matter in obedience to his superior… and even then feels obliged to add a rant against:

novelty-hunters and shameless scorners of antiquity … [who] arrogantly reject the position sanctioned by authority, as if it were not sophisticated enough, and who, in relying on their own wit, wish to think otherwise …as if they were the only ones in the know.

quoted in C. Philipp E. Nothaft, ‘Reluctant Innovator: Graeco-Arabic Astronomy in the “Computes” of Magister Cunestabulus (1175)’, Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2017), pp. 24-54.

This was written a hundred and fifteen years* before the king of England ordered all his Jewish subjects expelled as a way to avoid honouring his financial debts. Just so does Cunestabulus refuse to acknowledge his sources and, thus, defaults on his intellectual debts.

*corrected (18th Oct.) ’15’ should have read 115.

One does not need to be very old, or very wise, before one realises than in order to remain embraced by any community, monastic or social, certain words, names, ideas and beliefs must be treated as ‘not to be spoken’. No monk in Bacon’s time could say openly that ‘The knowledge of the Arabs and Jews’ is right” if it seemed to contradict the Book of Genesis. The fact that Genesis was a Jewish book was another thing that was not to be said too plainly.

In the earlier twentieth century, in England and in America, there were lso certain statements which could not be made, however true, and certain ideas which could not be offered honestly without negative responses from the academic community and from the general populace. Among them was that Europe had been the passive beneficiary of superior Asian learning or practice.

Lyn Thorndike battled without success to explain that Roger Bacon did not invent gunpowder. Lynn White would struggle to have the Anglophone and German world accept the reality of Asian presence in the west, and its effect in medieval and Renaissance Europe before 1490.

More recently, and to give an example to which I can attest, general readers may be forgiven for having no idea at all that for at least ten years, promoters of Eurocentric theories have been aware that the cloudband motif – often mis-called ‘wolkenband’ – came into the art of western Europe from Asia during the Mongol century.

The word’s being rendered in German may convey an idea that there’s something peculiarly German-central-European about the presence of that motif in the Voynich manuscript but such an impression is false. Because this matter will be relevant for the next post, I’ll repeat a few of the illustrations presented in my earlier essay on the subject. The first example is from fourteenth-century Padua.

That detail is taken from a painting by Guariento di Arpo (1310 -1370 AD), part of a fresco he painted for the church of the Eremitani. This shows the cloudband in its original, free-flowing form, while other details (such as the red-winged angels) suggests mediation through Byzantine forms and/or works produced earlier in the south-western Mediterranean.

This next example is from a fourteenth-century Persian miniature depicting Genghis Khan’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258.

(detail)  from Rashid-ad-Din’s Gami’ at-tawarih. Tabriz (?), 1st quarter of 14th century.

The miniature is believed painted in the city of Tabriz, in the region where the Azerbaijani is widely spoken and which was an early centre of the Yemeni Azdi. Under Mongol rule, Tabriz served as a major multinational centre of learning and of trade until it became the capital of the Turkic Qara Qoyunlu in 1375. The detail shows how that convention could also be also used for the flowing, and amorphous waters below. Christians of the Byzantine, Latin and Syrian churches, as well as Muslims, passed through Tabriz during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and have left accounts of the city’s magnificence and activity. It was there, and at the observatory of  Maragheh, that Gregory Chioniades learned Persian and studied the most recent developments in astronomical studies, specifically the updated tables of Claudius Ptolemy. 

In general, however, Europeans weren’t so comfortable with a line so irregular and chaotic, and there we soon find the motif made more nearly regular and treated more like a repeat-motif. The following example is taken from a later (c.1425-50) copy of Vox Clamantis, composed by the English poet John Gower between 1330 – October 1408.

It is certainly true that this motif is relevant to study of numerous drawings in the Voynich manuscript. It is also true that forms of ‘cloudband’ pattern were to prove popular in German-speaking regions, and especially among printers, but it is misleading to say – or even to to imply – that the presence of this motif is in itself proof that those drawings express any uniquely Germanic-central-European character. To use the term ‘wolkenband’ is of course quite correct when writing in German, but to use the German term if writing in English today is inappropriate.

Refusal to acknowledge accurately one’s sources of information, or to misrepresent the historical context by omitting any but theory-supporting material is one reason we see Voynich theories advance, while Voynich studies, as such, does not. Instead one sees the same ideas raised, supported, or let fall below the horizon, until some later person re-presents, re-discovers or re-invents them. The phenomenon Pelling once termed the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’.

Failure to do any more than raise ideas or repeat ideas without troubling to investigate and test them is another factor which prevents the study’s advance.

I am grateful to a former Voynichero* for bringing to my notice a series of communications made to Jim Reeds’ Voynich research mailing list in 1998. Among them are some which raise or make points I’ve made again recently in all ignorance. For example, I did not know that Jorge Stolfi had spoken of the “zodiac” – in quotation marks – in one of those communications. Another contributor in that year raised, apparently for the first time, the interesting possibility raised several times since then, but never actually researched, that Voynichese may use a script invented to record foreign languages.

*who is quite determined to remain anonymous, I’m sorry to say.

We also see, in that year, a communication from Rene Zandbergen in which he sketches roughly a theoretical link made between some drawings in the manuscript, certain ideas about astrology and about women’s medicine. Since 1998 many of those items, separately or together, have hardened into things ‘everyone knows’ though to my knowledge neither Zandbergen nor anyone else has actually presented a formal paper arguing that such matters are found united in any particular time and place. Any who might care to present such an argument should not neglect to mention Zandbergen, should he have been the first to raise that possibility.

Jorge Stolfi was contributing an account of the Chinese calendar, and from that information we learn that it was not only the Jews whose calendar considered a 19-yr cycle. He also provides another possible explanation for what we’d regard as months of 30 or 29 days, and refers to notional ‘agricultural seasons’ of 15 days or half-months. To my knowledge, no-one but P.Han ever attempted to argue the Voynich calendar a Chinese calendar.

Stolfi wrote,

“I wonder if there is any resemblance between it [the Chinese calendar] and Vms “zodiac” charts. I am not holding my breath, but still…

The classical Chinese calendar, in use for over 3000 years, was the “yin-yang li” or “lunar-solar calendar”. A “vanilla” year had 354 days, divided into 12 months, alternately 30 and 29 days, adding to 6 x 59 = 354. To keep the calendar in sync with the solar year (~365.25 days) and lunar month (~29.59 days), an extra would be inserted in some “leap years”. (An early scheme inserted 7 extra months in a fixed pattern over a period of 19 years).

The agricultural seasons: Independently of this lunar-solar system, the solar year was also divided into “agricultural seasons” by 24 seasonal points, spaced exactly 15 degrees apart on the zodiac. Therefore, a season lasted usually 15 but sometimes 16 days.

There’s a lot more in that communication, but my point is that almost a quarter-century ago, Voynich research had already reached a point where the “zodiac” idea was doubted; where researchers knew that a 19-yr cycle was not found only in Jewish calendar-calculations, that a time-marking system existed which could described the year in terms of 15 (or 16)-day periods and/or in terms of nominal “agricultural seasons” providing 24 periods of 15 degrees each.

In 1998, no-one looked more deeply into that question of Asian influence, perhaps because the study was still deeply reliant on Mary d’Imperio’s little book, and affected by the fact that the twentieth century’s attitudes had been unrelievedly Eurocentric.

Annette Stroud asked (April 15th., 1998) whether the Voynich script mightn’t be “a sort of shorthand capturing the graphic elements of an unfamiliar script.” She mentioned Arabic in particular.

Another member immediately blocked any conversation developing about that possibility, chiming in to state with apparent authority that:

“The totally European (Italian) character of the Ms has been used as an argument against an Arabic origin”.

To the best of my knowledge no-one has yet investigated the question of how foreign languages might have been represented by foreigners who went to foreign lands to trade, to preach or to reside and who learned to speak but not to write the local languages. We know, of course, that Jews would often write Arabic in Hebrew letters, and one sometimes sees other cases of mingled scripts Here, for example, are Egyptian (‘Coptic’) numerals combined with Syriac letters, though perhaps numerals are not relevant.

The next communication of April 15th., 1998 came from Zandbergen.

He does not react to Stolfi’s writing “zodiac” in quotes, but says:

the birthplace of Peter of Abano, whom I once tentatively connected with the zodiac section [sic], was a famous thermal spa in Roman and medieval times, known for treatment of (a.o.) women’s diseases. Abano translated a Persian work about the astrological significance of each of the thirty degrees of each zodiac sign (by Abu Ma’shar, a.k.a. Albumasar, also quite famous).

I’m not saying Abano wrote the VMs. He’s about as likely a source as Roger Bacon.

And on that inconclusive note, discussion of the Calendar ended for the time.

In concert with other Voynicheros, notably Toresella, Edith Sherwood, and ‘Steve D’, Zandbergen would attempt more than a decade later to create an official ‘Voynich herbal’ as adjunct to an extraordinary theory involving women’s baths, women’s medicine and an apparently fictional ‘Voynich villa’ located somewhere in Italy – though the narrative drew in some of Dana Scott’s identification of English plants, and some of my own plant-identifications (re-assigned to other folios at random to avoid due acknowledgements).

No solid evidence from archeology, historical or ethnobotany, or any informed analysis of the drawings was ever offered as support for that quasi-historical scenario or the rather dubious effort to own the plant-drawings. Whether the material was ever inflicted on the public in print I do not know. It can hardly have improved scholarly opinion of Voynich studies.

Another oddly arbitrary attitude to provenancing our present manuscript occurred in 2011. As soon as the radiocarbon range was published, it was asserted that since Roger Bacon cannot have hand-written the Voynich text, so the entire matter of an English provenance could be abandoned, along with the question of an Italian provenance, and both could be replaced by the ‘German-central European’ theory which had been waiting impatiently in the wings,

The difference was that the two previous opinions had come from persons experienced in evaluating a manuscript’s palaeography, codicology and general appearance, where the novel theory was not.

Persons trained and experienced in evaluating manuscripts had offered only two possibilities between 1912 and 2011 – England, or Italy.

Fixation on some ‘single author’ theory had blinded most to the fact that the one consensus was not necessarily incompatible with the other. One might well describe he origin (and hence the appearance) of the content, and the other the present quires’ place of manufacture during the early fifteenth century… as we shall see.

Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series.

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

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

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

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

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

write to voynichimagery AT gmail dot com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a research question.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

So: –

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nor did Panofsky know the next example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wiki article on ‘iconoclasm’ lacks depth.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Retrospective justifications

Lawyers may have ‘learned friends’; scholars only colleagues.

Added note – 13th. March 2022.  I’d prefer to add this as a ‘Comment’ but wordpress having decided comments are closed, I must add  it here.

I have today received an email in which the writer expresses themselves rather strongly on what they see as my ‘hypocrisy’ for complaining about mis-use, co-option and so on of earlier writers’ work. They point to this post in particular, saying that I have wrongly credited Rene Zandbergen with making the ‘oak and ivy’ connection, and that Zandbergen simply took a different copy of the same work, then asserting or permitting others to believe it a discovery gained by him as result of original effort.  If that is so, my apologies to Edith Sherwood and I agree that precedents should always be honoured even if a person later reaching the same opinion was, at the time, ignorant of that precedent.  Sherwood is of course not the author of the email but is the person whom the correspondent asserts should be credited with that ‘find’.  Since – as you’ll see from the post below, I dispute Zandbergen’s idea, and have not seen the precedent by Sherwood, I can only report the complaint publicly and apologise should an apology be in order.  If anyone would care to provide me with evidence of Sherwood’s having earlier made that connection, I’ll happily accept it and add the details here.  In the absence of date-able evidence, however I must leave the original post (below) as it is.


I’m going to be away for some weeks, so here’s an extra-extra-long post (originally designed as five separate posts) to serve as holiday reading while I’m gone. 🙂

NB. To skip the preliminaries, start from the heading: ‘Living Ivy’.

Abstract:  The Yale facsimile edition includes an essay predicated on the theory that the plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript are related to the European ‘herbals’.  In that essay a comparison is offered which, if it were it valid – might constitute the long-sought (but  never found) proof for that theory, and further indicate that a niche exists for the Voynich plants within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis type.  Credit for a comparison or  ‘pairing’ of folio 35v with  ‘oak and ivy’ from the ‘Manfredus’ herbal  is claimed by Rene Zandbergen, whose influence on the study has been constant since the early 2000s.  The following considers that experience, weighing the probability and evidence for and against such an interpretation of the image on f.35v.

WHEN later generations  consider Rene Zandbergen’s contributions to Voynich studies, rating high on the list will surely be his constant presence.

For at least two decades Zandbergen has been constant in reading and collecting work and ideas related to this study, incorporating his selections from such matter into his website (since 2010), and  sharing  information more widely in comments to group discussions and in private communications. Voynich studies needs people with long memories;  given the high turn-over in  researchers and degrading standards for credits and documentation of precedents, for any true history of this study we must depend increasingly on the memories of a few among the old guard and the energetic efforts of even fewer among the new. Attempting to discover whether precedents exist before embarking on a line of investigation can be very hard work indeed, and whether one of the ‘old guard’ will trouble to consult their own memories can be a bit touch-and-go.  After all, the study has devolved into a permanent ‘groundhog day’ since the early 2000s to the point where now any genuinely new insights are soon swallowed up in the mist, grabbed and repeated without mention of the source and then endlessly re-used and  ‘re-discovered’ by amateurs – many of whom confuse original contribution with ‘unprecedented invention’ and fear to admit their debts lest it cost them glory.Trying to work against that tide, to disentangle genuine from spurious claims of ‘discovery’ would require an entire team of fiercely determined and rigidly ethical members of an  ‘old guard’. And what Voynichero would care to spend more time on seeing justice done than on following his own area of interest?  But, as and when they choose, ‘old-timers’ such as  Pelling and Zandbergen are our best hope.How many hours Zandbergen has devoted to building his  website one cannot imagine. It has now become the ‘go to’ site for newcomers, journalists and others who want a quick key, to check details of dates or of  biographies.  It has also provided Zandbergen himself with a ready reference from which he, no less than journalists or newomers, can draw in writing essays.Despite this time-consuming project, Zandbergen  has still found enough time (almost every day)  to be present in most often-visited public arenas and there to take account of the discussions and contribute to them from the mass of material at his fingertips.His early achievements include his  translation into machine code of Gabriel Landini’s transcription of Voynichese – giving us EVA.  Another was his liaison with an Austrian television company which commissioned certain scientific tests.For all this – as Zandbergen reminded members of a forum just today – his qualifications are not in any field relevant to medieval manuscript studies, history or art and he should be regarded as an amateur.Few amateurs having twenty years’ interest in anything could resist the temptation to “puff” rather more.Also of value have been Zandbergen’s computing skills which produced the graphs and diagrams used to illustrate the information collected into his website.

As constant as that work has been, and his presence in most public conversations about the Voynich manuscript, so too he has shown unwavering fidelity to a theory which he and his co-author, Rafel Prinke, espoused early – perhaps as early as 2000.

At the time it was a ‘fringe’ theory, asserting that the manuscript had been made in German-speaking regions and was in some sense an expression of central European culture, and more specifically with content congenial to the interests of Rudolf II and other members of the central European nobility.While the evidence for this variation on d’Imperio’s version of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory is no more than it was two decades ago, the intervening period has seen constant efforts at its retrospective justification: German calendars have been hunted for images of Saggitarius with a crossbow and other German-language or German-made works hunted for costume which could be argued similar to costumes seen on figures in the Vms. An enormous amount of time and talk has been expended on a couple of lines of marginalia which are claimed German.    For lack of other researchers as constant and equally consistent in enthusing others to collaborate,   material accumulated today not only leans heavily to that side of the scales but almost entirely on it.  Today the ‘central European’ idea has achieved the status of what Santacoloma might call canonised myth, but which is better described, I think, as the process  by which ‘I feel’ becomes ‘it might have been’ and gradually via ‘it could have been’ is taken for ‘it must be’. The process has taken twenty years and the labour of a great many co-operating ‘ants’ as Ellie Velinska once called that group.Without being strident, Zandbergen has also quietly and unwaveringly introduced an idea that not only Rudolf, but Rudolf’s brother Matthias (Corvinus) owned the manuscript.Whether the notion that the manuscript was stolen by Jesuits originated with the Prinke-Zandbergen theory or not is another point difficult to determine but as yet there is no evidence offered by the manuscript or by any document of which I’m aware to justify either the the ‘Corvinus’ idea or that one.   On the face of it, the Jesuits’ acquisition of the work is perfectly transparent: it became a Jesuit possession when gifted to Athanasius Kircher by Marcus Marci – and we have the letter of gift to prove it.Otherwise, the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative appears to maintain the standard ideas in, or extrapolated from, Wilfrid’s tale of 1921 – such as that the manuscript is obscure only because meant for a social and intellectual elite, and that it is at base a manuscript composed of ‘ordinary’ European material including occult and/or scientific matter such as alchemy, magic, astrology and medicine in which Rudolf II (1552-1612) and his aristocratic circle were most interested.Here, however, we must be grateful for the radiocarbon dating which permits us (if we wish) to limit the range of Voynich research to the terminus ad. quem of 1438.I say this because it is easy to imagine where the ‘Corvinus’ idea might lead theorists less self-controlled than Zandbergen.   Matthias was initially given control over Hungary at a time when a large part of it was owned by Rudolf’s close contemporary Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) and within modern Hungary there is a popular movement re-inventing her image to have Bathory a nice aristocratic woman interested in women’s medicine. It takes little imagination to see how such an idea could be imposed on the manuscript’s content.But, as I say, we can halt if we choose at 1438 and maintain a proper level of skepticism not only about the ‘Corvinus’ idea but about the third-hand rumour of Rudolf’s supposed ownership.My own position is best expressed by quoting Patrick Lockerby, one of the very few left standing when the vellum’s radiocarbon date-range was published.  Well before the test was run he had said:

My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.

~ Patrick Lockerby.


Zandbergen has proven no less constant in maintaining his opinion of the plant-pictures, assuming (as had almost all before him) that these must constitute a variant form of Latin herbal: that is, a catalogue of medicinal plants employed in Latin (western Christian) Europe.

During the nineteen-twenties or -thirties when the manuscript was generally believed personally written by Roger Bacon, the limited horizons* of Wilfrid’s narrative and of any dependent on it permitted few alternatives.

*for those limited horizons and  reasons for them see ‘Fear of the Unknown and Raft Elegant‘.

However, one might have supposed that by 2000, with nine decades’ of failed attempts to discover in the Latins’ herbals any matching images – that is, matching in sequence and in style of drawing –  and with Tiltman’s negative judgement on that score expressed in the late 1960s, that researchers might have begun casting about more widely: extending the research laterally (to include other regions and peoples) or vertically to consider plant-imagery made to other purposes and/or in other media.

It didn’t happen –  not even when Tiltman’s paper was released by  NSA in 2002, under the Freedom of Information Act, or when qualified persons differed from the conservatives.  Those who were not ignored (as Mazars and Wiart were for years), were met with the usual methods by which the most conservative element avoids discussion of evidence and argument.   On a personal note, I gained most amusement from Pelling’s suggesting that in explaining the botanical imagery and the role of mnemonics  that I suffered from pareidolia.  The role of mnemonics in imagery had been unexplored by the Voynicheros before then, but the term is now constantly used, even if rarely informed by knowledge of the scholarship or of any work later than Yates – Yates being mentioned by d’Imperio.  Carruthers’ revolutionary studies have been often recommended by the present author, but no evidence of them appears in other Voynich writings to date.

Part of Tiltman’s verdict was quoted earlier,  but here it is in more detail:

if the plain text of the Voynich manuscript belongs to the illustrations on the same pages, as we have a right to expect in the complete absence of evidence to the contrary, then much the greater part of that text is related to plants. However, I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed.

  • [pdf] John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ [released by NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23-Apr-2002  (Case #19159)

Tiltman was not a man to accept hearsay and I think we may take it that he spoke from personal knowledge of the Friedman groups’ range of research.  It is possible that some combined list of works they consulted might one day be found among documents still at the NSA, or in the George C. Marshall Foundation.

[Part 2] What was it which prevented Tiltman’s pronouncement’s being taken seriously, and the lesson taken from the failures of the preceding decades?

It is an interesting question and deserves more than the briefest answer, but in the space of this post the short answer will have to do, and it is this:  that by the time the first mailing list closed there was a small but growing and determined ‘conservative’ element which adopted d’Imperio’s version of Wilfrid’s narrative with others of the Friedmans’ ideas as constituting a final word on the manuscript’s history and character, and perceived its own task less as work of investigation than of retrospective justification for that matter.

Before the 1960s, none had looked further than Europe because they supposed the manuscript’s composition coeval with its manufacture and they supposed all due to a single author imagined European.

After the early 2000s, any who began to consider any but a Latin European as determining the manuscript’s content was  discouraged from doing so by the ‘mass’ online – and often as much by personal ridicule  as by reasoned argument.  Of this unpleasant tactic – playing the man, not the ball – a precedent was also provided by reports of the Friedmans’ mockery of others, including of Professor Romaine Newbold.   Jorge Stolfi was among the first of the more recent ‘scalps’ taken by such means.

A hardening ‘conservative’ position presented itself as the  ‘common sense’ position, and for the new wave of Voynicheros who appeared in public conversations after c.2004 or so, these now-entrenched ideas were accepted as if they had been established from solid evidence: they served as premises rather than as speculations to be tested – and most obviously with the ‘softer’ narratives about theoretical histories for the manuscript or notions about its imagery.

Efforts to describe,  explain, decipher or translate Voynichese remained generally subject to more rigor and overall remained focused on the researcher’s work not his character. Critics were expected to explain their criticisms in detail; and (unlike other areas) no  vague assertion that the researcher was ‘talking nonsense’ was enough. Witness the technical and well informed criticisms of even so patently nonsensical a paper as Cheshire’s.

But with that difference between standards for discussing ‘Voynichese’ theories versus historical or iconographic matters, there began the dichotomy which exists today.  Opinions about the written part of the text usually weigh the statistical and linguistic evidence, but those focused on the pictorial content or historico-social environment regularly witness the personality-centred sort of attack as theory-defence.  It is a pity that this dividing fence has been flattened recently – again with criticisms of Cheshire as example.

Any Voynich researcher or writer soon becomes aware that ad.hominem regularly meets dissent from the ‘conservative’position in certain areas and almost invariably follows criticism of any opinions or theories particularly associated with a few of the best known ‘Voynicheros’.

Here, Nick Pelling has a well-earned reputation for directing fluent streams of vitriol against any who are less than approving of his friends’ theories and methods and, to a lesser extent of his own.  In general, however, he has an equally well-earned reputation for permitting free expression in comments to his blog, sometimes extraordinary patience with the most ‘out there’ theorists, and his academic standards in keeping clear the difference between his own work and others’ remains impeccable.

In one way, there can be no criticism made of any blogger’s choice of opinion, or of response to comments to their blog,  but given Pelling’s large following, high profile and standing as one of the ‘old guard’, the old problem of influence and responsibility must arise.   Knowing that any who would subject Pelling’s “machine-plants” idea to detailed criticism and dismissal, or dispute Zandbergen’s ‘oak-ivy’ comparisons as I’m about to do may incur public denigration of their intelligence, competence, motives and personal character is certainly a deterrent to putting higher value on the manuscript’s accurate evaluation than on the ‘Voynich community’s bonhomie.  The revisionist might hope for both, but I should think not in this generation.


Since my own is the only name I feel entitled to mention, I’ll say that during the near-decade in which I offered historical notes and analytical-critical commentary on the Voynich manuscript’s imagery the work received only two types of response from the ‘conservatives’:  results gained from that original research were taken and re-presented without acknowledgements, and/or were met by ‘criticisms’ of the ad.hominem sort.

There was just one informed criticism made over the entire period:  a correction to my description of the religious order to which Hugh of St. Victor belonged.

No qualified person in my field had been involved in the study, as far as I could discover, since the 1930s and that might explain the resort to personal criticisms by persons lacking the wherewithall to make comments of any other type.   Recently, the well-qualified   Alexandra Marracini  has produced a paper which reminds me of my very first essays on the subject of this manuscript, when I still thought I’d be dealing with nothing more  unusual than the home-made book of some amateur western Christian author.

It was from about 2010, once I began sharing online and it became clear that this material could not be made to fit a ‘central European’ or ‘Latin cultural expression’ theory that the nasty response began.   From the first it was of the ‘no-holds-barred’ type and was disseminated as brainless and information-zero ‘memes’, inventing which seems to be the one real skill that a couple of ‘Voynicheros’ may claim.

My persistence in seeking to read, and then to acknowledge precedents – if any – for my views was re-interpreted by ‘meme’ as an effort to claim credit: ‘to make a name’ as that meme had it.  Another meme that I recall said that some students of mine were not real people (the reason being, apparently, that we decided their only access to the ‘Voynich-Colosseum’ should be through my own email address).  The result of that little ‘meme’ was abuse which the students, their parents and the school found as irrational as it was unmerited, and the ‘Voynich’ option was terminated.   You may be pleased to hear the credits were made transferrable since cyber-bullying should not cost credit-points.   Another slander-meme impugned by qualifications;  the least principled did not think it too grubby for them to start memes calling me a liar, or when that one didn’t quite catch on, upgrading it to mental derangement.    Of late, it seems, the one or two core bullies have been toning it down a bit: perhaps someone explained to them in one-syllable words the meaning of ‘fact’ ‘fiction’ ‘slander’ and ‘libel’.

The meme of the month  – towards me; but I’m not the only  troublemaker – is ‘nonsense’.  Not exactly the quality of a Times Higher Education review for the amount of research it tries to cover, is it?

It wasn’t the memes, or even the fools who are unable to find better ways to defend their theory which bothered me most; it’s the number of sheep who, when the water-cooler guy says ‘Bah! duly say  ‘Baaah’.

I had supposed that with a manuscript which presents so many non-trivial problems, the sort of person who’d stick around would be one having the type of critical intelligence which likes difficult problems.

But of course, anyone with that sort of intelligence can’t be hypnotised into saying ‘baaa’ just because the chap next to them got it from someone who was told it by someone else.

They say instead – ‘where did you get that idea?’ and ‘Show me your evidence’ and.. in this particular case ‘And exactly what does this tell me that might help me better understand Beinecke MS 408’?

And so back to that more interesting matter…

The ‘Oak and Ivy’ comparison in the Yale facsimile essay.

In its premises and its approach the ‘herbal’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition has much in common with the book by Tucker and Janick, in that it aims only to illustrate and thus to convince readers of its premises and its premises are its (foregone) conclusions.  It is an engaging history of the medieval herbal manuscript, but one illustrated by ‘pairings’ from the Voynich manuscript – pairings whose validity is treated as self-evident.

Among them is one which – were it valid – would be of enormous importance for this study for it would offer the long-sought proof for that ‘variant herbal’ speculation, and indicate that within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis  mss exists some niche for the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.

Because it could be of such great importance, it has to be treated seriously and seriously evaluated.   One might wish it were not a ‘pairing’ for which the credit falls to a member of the ‘old guard’ but the credit is claimed by Rene Zandbergen.

He presented his ‘match’ some years ago in a power-point presentation, later passing it to others to re-present (with credit accorded him)  as e.g. to Ellie Velinska.  Still later, it was used in forum discussions where again the thanks and credit were received by Zandbergen.  Finally, with acceptance already general among the ‘online community’ the same pairing was included in the Yale essay.

On occasion Zandbergen has mentioned that Edith Sherwood had ( I am told ‘earlier’) compared  folio 35v with one in a medieval manuscript.  Zandbergen’s comment takes the following form in one forum exchange:

EllieV – 11-02-2016 The most popular example is the oak/ivy combination found by Rene in other old herbals

ReneZ – 11-02-2016 Edith Sherwood independently noticed the similarity, in her case with the Sloane MS, while I saw it in the Paris BN manuscript.

The British library’s Sloane collection includes more than one herbal, as does the collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France but I note that where Sherwood’s habit was always to pair a picture from the Voynich manuscript to some later botanical illustration or to a modern photograph of her preferred ‘i.d.’, some images are now included from medieval manuscripts and now she pairs folio 35v with  an image of oak-and-ivy from  Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 (folio 38v) –  to which I’ll return further below,

About  Zandbergen’s alleged ‘match’  only one point need be addressed and I’ll treat the vine-like element.  To discuss the pairing in full detail (as I’ve done elsewhere) would quadruple the length of this post.


Zandbergen’s Resources:

Zandbergen’s discussion of the plant-pictures, from 2000 until the Yale essay was published has relied in one sense on generations of the ‘Voynich herbal’ idea but more particularly on  Minta Collins’ book to which Zandbergen has constantly referred, and just as constantly referred others.

Published in that year (2000), Collins’ Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition became available two years before the NSA released Tiltman’s paper of 1967/8.   It would be two years later still before we had Touwaide’s critical review of Collins’ book in 2004, but that appears to have escaped general notice for the following decade and more, until the present author brought it to the attention of Voynich ninja members.

  • Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition.(2000)
  • the above, reviewed by Alain Touwaide – Isis,  Vol. 95, No.4 (2004) pp. 695-697.

Meanwhile, constant mention and recommendations of Collins’ book within the ‘Voynich community’ had seen it elevated to a status almost equal to that accorded d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose quotation some suppose a final word.    This same period saw escalate a trick of equating conservative ideas with the ‘good and sensible’ to the point where those engaging in original lines of research were discouraged –  and if not easily by ‘blanking’ or by citations from the two ‘bibles’ or items extracted from German medieval works, then next by comments suggesting that  only a ‘bad or irrational’ person would oppose the ‘central European cultural expression’  theory.

By about 2013-14,  assertions of ‘likeness’ met positive comment only if the comparison came from a Latin herbal or from central European manuscripts and books made between the thirteenth-mid sixteenth centuries – unless it were to ‘prove’ the work a Latin product.  Velinska’s ‘Duc de Berry’ theory was exempt.   The temporal range narrowed somewhat after 2013, as challenges to the radiocarbon dating of 2011 fell silent.  The conservatives’ geographic bounderies are widening a little further today but speculations about alchemical content, inherently anachronistic, remain current and so widely believed that to so much as doubt them has recently evoked an ‘eye-rolling’ from Pelling.  It would seem that another myth has achieved canonisation.

Zandbergen has displayed the same constancy in maintaining  the Voynich plant pictures a ‘herbal’ as he has shown in all else,  discouraged neither by Tiltman’s negative judgement nor by a century’s failure to find any place for them in that tradition. It is not an idea of Zandbergen’s invention, merely maintaining the speculations and assumptions of Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 and by the Friedman groups from 1944 onwards.

[Part 3] The ‘Manfredus herbal’

Against this pairing by Zandbergen of an image from the Voynich manuscript with one from the ‘Manfredus’* herbal we have the general objection that the ‘herbal’ idea remains a speculation and that were it well-founded there is a low probability that the same alleged ‘match’ would have passed all earlier notice. Believing the labels might offer a key to Voynichese, the Voynich plant-pictures and accompanying text have always been a focus of  study.

*properly:  Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823, but very often seen as ‘Manfredus de Monte Imperiali’

The Manfredus ‘herbal’ has been among the best- and most widely known of all medieval Latin copies of  the  ‘tracts on herbs’ and was so before Wilfrid had ever seen his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript.  By then the ‘Manfredus’ was already in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and detailed knowledge of it had spread across the Atlantic, in proof of which I’ll cite the book-length monograph by Edward Sanford Burgess, published in 1902.

Burgess was then a resident of New York and was still so  when Wilfrid migrated to that city from London, bringing his widely-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ – most of it filled with plant-pictures.

Burgess’ book-length monograph had been published by the Torrey Botanical Club journal (which is still in publication).  As handy guide to the text, Burgess included a ‘Tabular view of Plant-writers before 1600’ and as you see from the clip below (from p.98) the ‘Manfredus’ manuscript is included, dated it to c.1400.

  • Edward Sandford Burgess, ‘Studies in the History and Variations of Asters: Part 1: History of PreClusian Botany in its relation to Aster, Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol.10  (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.r

Within his monograph, in speaking of Dianthus, Burgess says, “… I have seen the plant pictured in a book which is written by Manfrēdus de Monte Imperiali.” (” Librum de simplicibus , qui in bibl. Parisina latet,”said Sprengel of Manfred’s work, in 1797 ; Fabricius knew of a copy in Paris about 1750..” (p.380)

Today, the date offered for Manfredus manuscript – that is, the digitised copy – at Gallica is again circa 1400, but the  Bibliothèque nationale de France has  1330-1340, leaving place of manufacture unspecified.  A website called ‘Manuscript Miniatures’ ascribes it to Pisa without explanation. And to Lillian Armstrong it was ‘Lombard’.

  • Lillian Armstrong, ‘The Illustration of Pliny’s Historia naturalis: Manuscripts before 1430′, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes  Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 19-39.

Some of those earlier attributions to place may owe less to consideration of the drawings or palette than to interpretations of the description ‘… Monte Imperiali’ –  on which subject the present writer’s opinion as offered  after looking into the question in 2016.   Taking it that the  ‘di’ here signifies “sent out from” rather than “born in” I concluded the post by saying:-

I see no reason why the “Manfredi di maestro Berardo da Montepeloso medicus” listed by Calvanico [on whom see Collins n.119] should not be the same person as that associated with BNF Lat 6823…Nor is it difficult to suggest why a clerk sent ‘abroad’ on behalf of Maestro Berardo might choose to describe himself in that way rather than as from Montepeloso.  A mere clerk, coming to an urban centre from the remote south of Italy – and from a place called “Mount Hairy” – would surely be sensitive to the sort of ridicule which urban lads would delight in heaping on a lowly  ‘rustic’.  Nor would that description  be a lie, for  Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) and its castle were imperial possessions until Frederick II gave them to the then newly-sanctioned Francsican order of preaching friars.  Perhaps the local community itself had been used to speaking of the mount and its castle as ‘imperial’, but to determine the last point either way would require research of a depth it scarcely warrants.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A note on Manfredus di Monte…’ voynichimagery, (July 10th., 2016)

At the time none of the items in that paragraph, save Collins’ reference to Calvanico, was to be found in any of the usual Voynich writers, though (as so often) the situation may have changed without notice.

Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) today. Image published earlier in post to voynichimagery ((July 10, 2016)

A more recent scholarly source is the following volume, with Givens’ valuable essay on the Tractatus de herbis:

  •  Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis, 1280-1526′ in Givens, Reeds and Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550  (2006). pp.115-156.

In c.2010, the idea was prevalent in Voynich forums that  ‘Manfredus di Monte Imperiali’ was son to Frederick II.  This is not so, though he may have been a namesake and the same idea is found in other and older writings. It is not inexplicable if we suppose it due to a misinterpretation of the dedication which the noble Manfredus included in a thirteenth-century copy of Pseudo-Aristotle’s ‘De pomo’.  That dedication is quoted in

  • Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1922), pp. 229-258.  (n.39   p.237).

[Part 4] So, to return to Burgess.  A botanist with a particular interest in the history of plant-pictures and -texts made within the Greco-Latin world and to the 17th century lives in a city to which there comes a much-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ filled with what are thought to be herbal pictures.   His particular focus is on antique and later mentions of the ‘aster’ family.  Does it seem likely that he could resist trying to discover what members of that family were recorded by Roger Bacon, an idol of the time?

And if he were to go to Wilfrid’s bookshop to express interest in the manuscript, would Wilfrid deny a potential buyer?  And seeing those images, is it likely that Burgess (among the many others, including Fr. Petersen or members of the Friedman groups) would consistently fail to notice that folio 35v was ‘identical’ or even a ‘close match’ for an image in the well-known  ‘Manfredus’ manuscript?

I do not know if Burgess ever saw the Voynich manuscript, though I suspect Tiltman saw Burgess’  ‘Tabular view’ and that it is among the reasons he can speak with such certainty of the “very limited range” of  “writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries”.

But Burgess’ example illustrates my point that the Manfredus ‘herbal’ was well and widely known to specialists on both sides of the Atlantic even before Wilfrid bought the ‘ugly ducking’.  Seeking precedents those as interested and well informed as Petersen was and as dedicated as the Friedman groups were could hardly have failed to hunt it for something ‘like’, whether or not they heeded the vital point already made by RIchard Salomon in 1936, that locating precedents or antecedents means matching style of drawing and comparable sequences.  I’ve already quoted that letter to Anne Nill in full, but here’s the critical sentence:

“… I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.”

Richard Salomon to Anne Nill (July 9th., 1936 ),

Altogether the circumstances offer an a priori  argument against Zandbergen’s ‘match’ being valid –  at least within the historical and social context he presumes – but here it will be enough to address just one of the many points at which the ‘match’ fails –  the vine-like plant which Zandbergen claims equates to the Manfredus’ image for ivy.

Living Ivy.

Unless employed for purely decorative effect (e.g. ivy-rinceaux), or as crown for Dionysos or something of that kind,  the depiction of ivy in medieval Latin graphic art identifies a living plant by two elements, only one of which is invariable.

The leaf was drawn (European ivy is evergreen) and if any form of support was shown, the image emphasises the ivy’s clinging character.  That second is the invariable element .   It is clear, too, that to the medieval draughtsman, ivy’s clinging was tp be depicted as ‘twining’ – akin to that of the bean or of the Convolvulus.

Sherwood’s current comparison for f.35v, as I mentioned before, is Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 folio 38v.  This certainly does show ivy (accuracy in a manuscript’s labels are not to be presumed), and it is equally clear that this draughtsman expresses himself through the usual conventions of Latins’ art; his ivy is denoted by its twining habit.  He has also included the umbels of black berries.  His leaves are given five lobes.  Neither of the last two features is invariable.  The ‘clinging’ character is.

Climbing ivy has leaves of varying form, with those of a non-flowering stem having 3–5 triangular-shaped lobes and those of flowering shoots being oval to eliptical. There is also a ‘ground ivy’ depicted in some herbals, but the point is that when shown with any supporting object or plant, the medieval image tells the reader it is an ivy plant by means of that character of ‘clinging’ which is depicted as a twining about the support.    Not what we see in folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408, where the vine-like plant is not only shown to be unable to cling, but lacks any leaf.  If the latter was intended to signify the plant a deciduous one, then it cannot be European ivy.  Again, though perhaps less significant, is the fact that the berries are not depicted using the convention of that ‘fan-shaped’ umbel.  Whether the supporting plant is meant for an oak is a separate question, but the fact remains that if the vine was not intended to be read as ivy, Zandbergen’s comparison and claimed ‘match’ is invalid and once more we have no reasonable evidence, documentary or otherwise, retrospective or otherwise, in support of the constant assertion that the Voynich plant-pictures should belong in the Latins’ ‘herbals’ tradition.

Another ‘Sloane manuscript’  Sherwood had noted,  inspiring  Zandbergen to find more, was Sloane MS 56 (f.81r).  Once again, the ‘twining’ habit and a leaf.

The next example (below, right) comes from another of the best-known Latin (western Christian) herbals, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747, and yet again we see that to define ivy it was not the flower or any set form for the leaf which was employed, but that close-clinging habit envisaged as twining.  The suckers which we now suppose essential to the ivy are not depicted.

But here’s the interesting thing; that other Sloane manuscript (MS 56) noted by Sherwood is not a herbal. It’s an early fifteenth-century copy of John of  Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis.

[Part 5] John of Arderne’s glossary and its images

In a passing comment to Pelling’s blog, in 2009, Zandbergen mentioned a different copy of it, though also from the Sloane collection (Brit.Lib. Sloane 335), saying under Pelling’s post, ‘Pre-1450 German possibility’- Dec.21st., 2009) :

“ To add to the confusion…  I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet is neither from Italy nor from Germany:. ”

He omitted there to mention that it was English or to give any details or date, but in the British Library catalogue Sloane MS 335 is dated to the ” last quarter of the 14th  or 1st quarter of the 15th century”.

I find no evidence that Zandbergen explored the perceived similarities – nor did he specify any – but I agree that there are valid points of comparison to be found in some drawings from that manuscript and some few of the Voynich plant-pictures.

Still other copies remain of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis and I think readers will be most interested in the catalogue record provided with another copy (made c.1475-1500) and now in Glasgow University’s Special Collections as  MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9). Part of that record reads:

Arderne’s style of Latin is rather colloquial; indeed, his texts may almost be described as polyglot as his use of Latin is somewhat inconsistent. As well as providing glosses in English and Anglo-Norman, the text occasionally lapses in to sections written in English for no apparent reason. Although it is impossible to say whether this was how Arderne himself originally composed his work, or whether such anomalies crept in as his texts were copied from manuscript to manuscript, it nevertheless demonstrates the multilingual nature of literate medieval English society.

From the university’s website – Glasgow University  (Special Collections  .

More, the pictures of interest in Sloane 335 follow after Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ of the ‘French’ plant-names used in Paris in his day.  This raises the interesting question of whether the pictures in the earlier copy (Sloane MS 335) may derive from a source which Arderne had copied in Paris during the first half of the fourteenth century.  (He is mentioned as serving at the Battle of Crecy). Here, some of the pictures

image above from the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts site. (Not  yet on its  ‘Digitised Manuscripts’ site).

.. and below Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ courtesy of the University of Glasgow and the internet archive, reproduced from a paper which  D’arcy Power delivered in 1913 to the 17th. International Congress of Medicine in London.  (Note: Power used the letter i in isolation to signify (that is…) which we normally render as ‘i.e.’.

Stylistic tricks in common.

The drawings do share certain stylistic tricks in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, but the comparison offers no easy key to the Voynich drawings; it is important to distinguish between the graphic techniques employed by draughtsmen and the objects of their attention.

Buds or fruit are shown emerging from the calyx in similar ways, in two cases in Sloane 335 and as comparison the image from folio 1r.

(left) detail from Brit.Lib. MS Sloane 335 folio 82r.   (right) detail from Beinecke MS 408 fol. 1r.

More interesting is the placement of just one black dot on each of a plant’s leaves.

The Sloane drawing appears to me (correct me if you know better) to use the dots to mean ‘burres’ or burrs.  It may – but need not – carry the same sense in the Voynich image, though we note the leaves there are are also given spines, or bristles, along the leaf-margins

I would agree then with Rene’s observation, quoted above, that the drawings made in England about the same time as the Vms – but possibly from a French exemplar – display points in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, and that they look  “more  ‘Voynich like'”  than anything I’ve seen so far cited by a Voynich writer – certainly more ‘Voynichlike’ than any image cited from a Latin herbal including the Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, (Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823).


  • When commenting earlier on these drawings from Sloane 335 (in a postscript to ‘The Matter of “alchemical herbals”‘, voynichimagery, (April 8th., 2013), I added mention of a Peter of Arderne, referring to:   Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon And His Search For A Universal Science (1952) pp.120-121.

Among other pointers to an Anglo-French environment for manufacture of the Voynich manuscript and its early use are that the month-names are closely similar to the Anglo-French forms; that (as I first pointed out), the linguistic link between a crossbowman and Sagittarius is offered by entries into the English military rolls where ‘Sagittario’ (and variants) are found used for crossbowmen hired for service in Calais, and again  (this being now much re-used without mention of the present author), similarity in form between the type of  ‘cloudband’ seen in some manuscripts of John Gower’s  Vox Clamantis and (in those same), use of the ‘orb’ in three divisions to represent the world –  replacing the older ‘T-O’ form.  That ‘orb’ form is seen used for the same purpose in works by Roger Bacon and has been attributed to him.  I won’t elaborate now, having already published several posts on these matters at voynichimagery.

Noting that in  2014 Ellie Velinska had described an incidence of this form as an ‘inverted T-O’, the present author provided in August-October 2017 its history in brief, explaining its evolution within Christian imagery, and this ‘orb’s replacing the the earlier ‘book of the world’ emblem, first in English works. detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel 83 f.130 (c.1310-1320). See also Pelling’s comments on Ellie’s post (ciphermysteries. Oct.18th., 2017).

detail from Bodleian MS Laud Misc. 719 f.21r (1425-1450). Introduced in ‘The Orb, the Book and Equivalence Part 2’  voynichimagery (Mon. November 20th, 2017) and a detail (below) illustrating its style of ‘cloudband’ – this item from the author’s research having been shared with  members of the voynich.ninja forum at that time.

In closing, readers please note that by c.2010, Dana Scott was alone convinced of an English provenance for the Voynich manuscript and he continued actively engaged in investigating English sources when I last saw his comments to the second mailing list.  Any researcher finding him/herself moving towards a similar position should not neglect to consult the work Dana has done over so many years, nor to credit him by name when taking any of it… up.  The second mailing list is still running, thanks to the generosity of Rich Santacoloma and I believe Dana remains a member.

typo corrected (thanks, Michael).25th May 2019; abstract added May 27th., 2019 and clarifications for the sense in which ‘Tractatus de herbis’ is used in this paper.

June 1st – Gower images added at Dr.O’Donovan’s instruction. June 3rd, detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel MS 83 f.130. L.S.