What magic? Where magic? imposition of the occult. Pt1- Wilfrid.

Header – detail from Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 821 f.41v.
Two previous posts
  • Ending the “skies above/certain measures” series. (May 31, 2021)
  • New Voynich research (May 24, 2021)


wilfrid_voynich1Wilfrid Voynich dated the manuscript (Beinecke MS 408) to the latter part of the thirteenth century. He ascribed both composition and inscription for the whole of its content to Roger Bacon, and for no better reason than that he supposed the pictures were about ‘natural philosophy’ – however Wilfrid understood that phrase – and with better reason because the manuscript’s materials looked to him like something from the thirteenth century.

But in his talk of 1921, Wilfrid never said that the pictures resembled any from a book about magic, nor that Bacon had practiced or approved of magic, but only that Bacon had been accused of practicing ‘black magic’ when practicing ‘science’.

magic Bacon

from: Wilfrid M. Voynich, ‘A Preliminary Sketch of the History of the Roger Bacon Cipher Manuscript’, Transactions of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Vol. 43 (1921). p.415. 

Note Wilfrid’s saying ‘misrepresented’ – which is absolutely right. And of course, since the materials and form for the manuscript were not incompatible with productions from thirteenth century Europe, it never occurred to Wilfrid to look beyond it.

Wilfrid’s forward-driving, unchecked and associative style would set the pattern for the sort of logic that would, from 1912 onwards, be the typical style of quasi-historical theories about the manuscript.

You see how Wilfrid’s mind grasps at some impression of ‘nearest-fit’ for the images; this he then experiences as ‘recognition’ of something familiar despite being unable to read any, and from there he develops an irrational chain that runs .. “If then … then… then … then”…

One need look no further than O’Neill and the ‘sunflower’ theory to see how the pattern applies.

Impressions are all very well as a first phase of investigations and, within the compass of his/her own specialisation, a trained person’s impressions are often accurate, but experts routinely double- check impression against concrete examples and primary historical evidence. With a strongly self-critical eye!

Wilfrid’s ‘historical logic’ reads like someone who has misread a question in arithmetic and so argues that, ‘Given that 2+2=5. so then… and therefore.. and so probably… and therefore certainly…

We can ask questions of Wilfrid, but never answer them, such as – what exactly did he think “natural philosophy” meant? or ‘Did he ever have solid evidence to inform his ‘historical logic’? The only reference he mentions is a dictionary of sixteenth-century biographies.

Natural History and Natural Philosophy

In Latin Europe, until the twelfth century, ‘natural philosophy’ is closer to what we’d call natural history and comes down to the herbals, bestiaries and lapidaries and basic knowledge of the constellations – all of which might be taught as moralia. So when Wilfrid speaks of an encyclopaedic ‘variety’ of subjects, this could be what he meant. We’d call it a form of ‘natural history’. The first encyclopaedic work in the Latins tradition was Isidore of Seville‘s Etymologiae, compiled early in the 7th century AD but as we learn from such 12thC writers as Hugh of St.Victor, the encyclopaedic method existed as part of the art of memory before encyclopaedic writers such as Albertus, Bacon, Pierre d’Ailly or Peter Lombard began writing.

On Hugh of St.Victor and the art of memory, I recommend Mary Carruthers‘ works, beginning with

  • The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric. and the Making of Images. 400–1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (1998).
  • The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1990. (Second Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2008.) First edition was published in 1980.

From about the fourteenth century, and within university environments, ‘natural philosophy’ would gradually become little more than commentaries on Aristotle.

To argue, in the twenty-first century, that either sort of ‘natural philosophy’ informs the content of the Voynich manuscript one would have to address the fairly obvious objection that so far the Voynich manuscript has found no comparison in any copy, text or extant notebook from any fourteenth-century or early fifteenth-century university student or teacher.

re illustrated student notebooks in general. The closest comparison presented for the Voynich manuscript, in very general terms, is an illustrated notebook which was brought to notice by Marco Ponzi. Ponzi cites the manuscript as Pistoia Biblioteca Forteguerriana Manoscritti A 33 and describes it as made by a fifteen-year old named Sozomeno, under the tutelage of a teacher from San.Geminiano. The drawings are not closely similar, but are placed in the margins and they embody in allusive and associative ‘mnemonic’ form the content of the written text.

(I regret that Marco Ponzi does not publish for the public at large, and will permit or deny any given reader access, so there’s little point in offering a direct link to his essay in Viridis Green. I do recommend reading his work, though, if you can.)

On the shifting emphasis and definition of ‘natural philosophy’ in Latin European learning, and the divide between medieval and modern phases, see

  • ‘Natural philosophy, medieval’, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. (entry by
    Edith Dudley Sylla). see also the special edition of Vivarium, Vol.35, No.2 (1977) ‘Roger Bacon and Aristotelianism’ especially
  • Jeremiah Hackett, ‘Bacon, Aristotle, and the Parisian Condemnations of 1270, 1277’ (pp.283-314).

For our needs, the key point is that ‘natural philosophy’ was never a euphemism for magic or occult practice, even if some attempted to gain weight by attributing their content to such figures as Solomon, Aristotle, or Hermes tresmegistus – and were later to include Roger Bacon’s name. Magicians’ borrowed plumes were something Bacon himself protested. The following comes Thorndike:

Thorndike on Bacon's naming falsely attributed texts

Roger Bacon detail from WellcomeIf Wilfrid had wanted to suggest that the Voynich manuscript’s content was about occult matter, he would hardly attribute it to Roger Bacon,

Because he believed it was by Bacon, he was at least consistent in saying only that Bacon had been accused of ‘black arts’ – but not that the manuscript included magic.

‘Natural history’ is not ‘natural magic’.  Nor was ‘natural philosophy’.

At the same time, Wilfrid did try to invert the normal logic of cause and effect, insinuating – not arguing – that because occult matters were (in his view) a late sixteenth-century pre-occupation in Prague, such matter might in some way be back-projected onto the manuscript which he, himself, insisted the autograph of an English Franciscan who had died in c.1220. It’s an outrageous bit of manipulation, but one which had continuing affect in the manuscript’s study.

We know, today, that samples from four folios in the top eleven quires returned a radio-carbon range of 1404-1438, so we can discard the ‘Bacon autograph‘ idea, and (of course) that back-projection of magic in Rudolfine Prague.

Rudolf’s great-great-great grandfather* might have been born when the manuscript was made.

*Frederick III. born 1415. Frederick III, Rudolf's great-great-great grandfather


Laying aside the inclusion of Bacon’s name in rote lists of ‘ancients’ in later magical works, Molland reports that..

.. our major legendary sources are reduced to essentially two. The first is a prose romance written probably in the late-sixteenth century and entitled ‘The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon. Containing the Wonder full Things that he did in his Life: also the Manner of his Death; with the Lives and Deaths of the two Coniurers, Bungye and Vandermast. Very Pleasant and Delightfull to be Read’. This work, which I shall hereafter call the Famous Historie, formed the basis for Robert Greene’s play ‘The Honorable Historie of frier Bacon, and frier Bongay’, and the play contains no new legendary material of interest.

The second source is much earlier, but much shorter. It occurs in a recital of deeds of Franciscans written in Dubrovnik in 1384-85 by one Peter of Trau. In this Bacon is not explicitly spoken of as a magician, but as one who was more interested in performing experiments in real philosophy than in writing or teaching.

Nevertheless the deeds recounted are of a type that would later be termed magical. Both these accounts probably had a strong basis in oral tradition, and we may suspect that the uncertainties of orally transmitted stories formed the background to the volte-face made by the bibliographer John Bale.

In his Summarium of 1548 he [Bale] described Bacon as a ‘juggler and necromantic mage’ who was said to have performed great marvels at Oxford ‘not by the power of God but by the operation of evil spirits.’ But about ten years later, in his ‘Catalogue’, Bale wrote of Bacon, ‘He was possessed of incredible skill in mathematics, but devoid of necromancy, although many have slandered him with it”.

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

In sum: it looks as if the ‘occult content’ story is one of the few persistent legends that cannot be be attributed to the talk Wilfrid gave in  1921.

Instead, to discover its origin, we must turn to the talk delivered on the same occasion by Professor Romaine Newbold who, better informed about medieval history and more familiar with primary sources, associated Bacon’s ‘natural philosophy’ with Aristotle and experimental science.

What he might have thought or written had he first looked more critically at Wilfrid’s “Bacon-wrote-science-in-cipher” proposition, we’ll never know. His principal error was the same as came to infect study of the Voynich manuscript to the present day – he adopted his ‘givens’ without first subjecting them to rigorous cross-examination and imposed what he knew about his ‘given’ – a Roger Bacon ciphertext – onto the manuscript.

I’ll survey his paper in the next post.

Skies above. 6c: Methods, ideas and attitudes – and the ‘foreign’ in Voynich studies.

Header: (left) Precession and the northern circumpolar stars; (centre) night sky over Paris, Aug.22nd., 1420; (right) Precession and the southern circumpolar stars.

Two previous posts in this series:

update 11th November to show skies as calculated for Alexandria in 1420 AD, (August 22nd.).  readers comments and any correction most welcome.

The reason for spending so much time on the historical ‘backdrop’ is that when text and images are both problematic, as they are in the Voynich manuscript, we need to identify the ideas that will (one hopes) direct us towards the time, place and languages common to the first enuciator and his – presumably contemporary – audience.

How this is done: a thumnail guide to method and technique (1,500 wds)

As example: by merely looking at this small image (below, right) we might say that it is  “a bear, writing”.  That’s called treating an image as a “picture of..” Since the 1920s it has been the standard approach adopted by Voynich writers.

Against this approach, the analyst’s aims to – as it were – listen in on the communication  between the maker and his first audience, and assumes that their communication will be about their shared environment and languages – both verbal and visual.  We can do this for images produced in the pre-modern period because individual self-expression was not then perceived as the chief purpose of art  nor was ‘the artist’ the chief focus of attention.

So although this little detail could be imagined to be all about bears,  the form given it here depends on knowledge of [St.} Ursula‘s legend  (her name means a dear ‘little bear'(f.) combined with a specific error made by Geoffrey of Monmouth in relating her biography,  in twelfth century England. It is that error which is reflected in the conjunction of a little bear, and  writing.  (see details further below).

Recognising the tenor of this ‘conversation’, the researcher can now provide an upper (earlier) date for  first enunciation (a terminus a quo) and simultaneously identify a region within which maker and audience would be ‘speaking the same language’.

This, in turn, limits the range of spoken and written languages embodied in the accompanying text.  It must be one of those attested in the region and period where Geoffrey’s error had affect.

And this will be so  whether or not the accompanying text is legible.

Stylistics must then be taken into account. If they are not compatible with the information which an iconological analyst has ‘read’ from the image so far, that analyst must re-think the way they have read the image. It is quite unacceptable  to address opposition between the historical record and a personal impression by making statements which begin “the painter could have been/done…”.

In this case, the inclusion  of  a French-influenced bryony/’ivy’ border gives us the lower (i.e. later) limit for first enunciation: terminus ad quem.

The image cannot have been formed earlier than Geoffrey of Monmouth’s error;  the style of the bryony ornament makes it unlikely it was first enunciated later than the fourteenth century.

We can conclude with some confidence therefore –  whether or not the accompanying text is legible – that the manuscript’s content and specifically its written text came from a source available in the range 12thC-14thC and this detail was first given form in England and/or in 14thC France, a time when England and France were very closely connected by both popular and learned culture – and by politics.

I thus reach a conclusion that the ‘conversation’ between the first enunciator and his intended audience occurred in an Anglo-Norman environment and that it employs languages (visual and written-verbal) which were shared in that time and region:  Latin or one of the vernaculars employed at that time in England and/or in France would be indicated as the language of any accompanying text.

So now, having explained both  ‘why’ and ‘how’ the conclusions were reached, I must emphasise the the next step as the most vital when an opinion is to be shared, especially in a formal assessment of any object, and most particularly if (as is the case for most Voynich researchers) one has no access to raw data from laboratory tests or even to the physical object.

This step is where conclusions are tested against external scholarship and verifiable fact before being offered the reader, colleague or client.  And once again – if the evidence opposes an analyst’s opinion, it is they who must reconsider the matter.

To obscure disparities between one’s opinion and the objective historical record by creating stories or indulging in speculation is frowned upon,  and not least because it shifts attention from the object at issue,  to the researcher.   It alters a process of understanding to one of credulity.  It alters the relative roles of researcher and client or colleague – because instead of assisting their better understanding the object, it demands an act of faith from them to the researcher.  I should much prefer that a reader or colleague reacted to the information I provided by saying,  “I accept your evidence and understand your reasoning, but I won’t believe your conclusions” than “I don’t understand the thing any better, but I  will believe whatever you say.”

In this case, conclusions drawn from our reading of the ‘bear’ detail are very easily checked.  We have the manuscript’s catalogue record (Brit.Lib. MS  Egerton MS 3277), a very solid source because while no catalogue is perfect, it has always been the British Library’s practice  to exclude speculative matter.   Informed differences of opinion, where they exist, are always from well-informed persons; are clearly marked as items debated and the catalogue entry includes a bibiography which allows the reader to weigh the grounds on which each opinion was built.

So.. testing against the catalogue record (or other historical sources) shows that the ‘little bear’ on folio 13r is indeed in an Anglo-Norman work, one made in England,  and that the manuscript’s written text is in Latin and Anglo-Norman French, the whole manuscript being dated to the second half of 14th century.

Because the written text on folio 13r is legible, we can add further to our description and say the ‘little bear’ serves as illustration, specifically, for verses 6-8 of that Psalm. (Psalm 15 in the Vulgate; 16 in modern translations).

Here the iconological analyst would stop, even if privately they thought that, in addition to the rest, the image might also convey an indirect compliment to the scribe.

Why might the analyst think so?

In the western European Christian (Latins’) manuscript tradition, the usual order of production was that the scribe first ruled out the page and then inscribed the written part of the text. before the page was passed on down to the ‘pictors’ – whose available space, and its shapes, the scribe had effectively determined.  And  verse 6 of that Psalm reads:  “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance..”  🙂

Why would the analyst not say this to the client or colleague?

Because there is no objective source against which that idea/insight can be tested. Simple as that. To prove an idea is to test it – to stress-test it – and in our discipline, the default must be that whatever cannot be tested must be presumed untrue. Others have different standards.


Monmouth and Ursula

In 12thC England, Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to have mis-read “Deo notus”(?) as Dianotus, and then supposed it the name of Ursula’s father. ‘Dia notus’ can be punningly rendered as a ‘record of days’ or ‘book of hours’ or even of the months (dian-notus).  On which point see entry ‘Saint Ursula’ in the Catholic Encyclopaedia of 1917 or the wiki article in which much of the same information is repeated. On ‘Dianotus’ see Geoffrey of Monmouth’s  (Historia.., Bk 5 Ch.14 ). Cusack credits a fifteenth-century Englishman, Edmund Hatfield with the form ‘Deonotus’, though Hatfield himself refers to a lost Latin sermon. In any case, Hatfield’s slip is clearly inspired by existing connection made between Ursula and literacy.

  • Carole Cusack, ‘Hagiography and History: the Legend of Saint Ursula’, in Carole M. Cusack and Peter Oldmeadow (eds), This Immense Panorama Studies in Honour of Eric J. Sharpe, [Sydney Studies in Religion 2], 1999, pp. 89-104.  (p.96)

There exists little on ‘the monk of Rochester’ Edmund Hatfield, though he is thought to have died in 1502.  My sources were

  • Cecil Henry Fielding (compiler), The Records of Rochester (1910)  p.246.
  • W.B. Rye, ‘Catalogue of the Library of the Priory of St.Andrew, Rochester AD.1202’, Archaeolgia Cantiana, Vol.3 (1860) pp. 47-64 (p.53). He notes the alternative spelling ‘Hatfeld’.

Though the explanation of Ursula’s true origin would take us too far from our subject, it is to the point that Ursula was associated with women’s education, and  in later Italy was chosen as role model (patron saint) for a community of nuns whose charter was to promote literacy and learning for women.

I hope I’ve shown in this example that analytical method is valuable whether or not the accompanying written text can be read.

Analysis of one small detail couldn’t provide the title of the text written on this page of Egerton 3277, not even the fact that it came from the Bible – though if one were to consider every image in that manuscript, or if one were a medieval person whose literacy began with memorising the Psalter, we might.  (Note that our aim is not only to say where and when a  manuscript, as object, was manufactured).

Today, what analysis of this type can do is to define the range in which those who are attempting to read an illegible text may concentrate their efforts with reasonable confidence.  The image of the little bear was fairly easily read but those in the  Voynich manuscript display a variety of influences and disparity between times and places of first enunciation. The work is clearly a compilation; its  images have been affected by time and by transmission. They incorporate evidence of distinctly different ‘conversations’  between one section and another, and even at times in a single page.  The whole then presents a fascinating range of questions which must be addressed first by analysis and then (as always) by ‘stress-testing’ any initial opinion or impression against the solid information provided by external scholarship.

Naturally, if one’s conclusions agree with those of an earlier Voynich writer, it is essential to credit that precedent – if you can be certain you have seen the original statement.


The language of art is compounded of a particular people’s shared culture, ideas and formalised conventions in expression – and of the verbal and visual languages proper to them.  These things together both inform and limit, first,  the mental image and then the range of its physical expression.

Because the imagery in the Voynich manuscript includes very few details exhibiting the customs of medieval western Europe’s common culture, we must work from a  wider historical ‘backdrop’ to identify the narrower historical context(s) which will make the manuscript’s content less unintelligible for a modern reader.

To this point, the backdrop now extends from the Hellenistic to the medieval centuries, and from Asia minor to the south-western Mediterranean and has shown how certain themes and concepts were maintained but variously expressed though that range.   What is now to be done is – so to speak – to move a problematic image across that backdrop until its form and content no longer appear remarkable.  It should look quite at home; still individual but not uncomfortably different, and most importantly no longer unreadable.

Connection to spoken language is a factor often overlooked in discussions of the imagery in this manuscript, though it is certainly true that when  the sense depends on some pun in the vernacular, or some event of only local and temporary interest, the meaning may be lost quite rapidly, even within the same traditions.

example – snails and knights.

Today many are puzzled by the frequent marginal images in books of hours where an armed knight is shown fighting a snail. Now, this might be an allusion to the centuries-long ongoing struggle called the  [re-]’conquista’ –  by way of allusion to Pliny’s term for a snail: concha.  But alternatively, or indeed, simultaneously, it may refer to the sort of things Crusaders had in mind when they set off to go a-conquering.  (to clarify this further might imperil the blog’s ‘G’ rating).

Or, again, it might be paralleling the adults’ battles with the children’s game of conkers, once played “using snail-shells, hazelnuts and the like (as Southey wrote in his memoirs in 1821).  Children’s games weren’t  of interest to medieval writers, and only Southey’s much later comment and the conjectured etymology offers support for that possibility.

[Conkers] have come from the dialect word for ‘hard nut’ (perhaps from the French for ‘a conch’ – ‘conque’), maybe from the old game using shells and nuts (‘conquerors’), or again from the French ‘cogner’ (to hit).

(I am indebted  to Jane Struthers’ blogpost (here) for that information.

Or, of course, it may allude (in addition or exclusively) to a pun on armour/armor – Amo(u)r vincit omnia.


The most problematic images – and the most intriguing for the specialist –  are ones whose  first enuciation clearly occurred in one period and culture, but which now include details indicative of  very different time(s) and attitudes. Images of this type bring  to the analyst’s calculations a  third, and dynamic, factor: affect from transmission.  Now, instead of a simple, linear structure for the research – such as that needed for the ‘bear’ in Egerton 3277 (see above ‘How this is done’) –  we have a sort of  historical 3-D chess problem with ‘transformations’ between one level (historical-cultural stratum) and the next.

This may occur when a new text conflicts with established conceptions of the world for a particular community, but we are principally concerned with the other side of that coin – when imagery itself was transmitted into evironments where it could not be ‘read’ as originally intended.  One must then take into account the probability that an original  detail  was accorded  different relative weight and value in one plane as against in the next.  Ideally, one aims to explain this too, but it isn’t always possible. History doesn’t always relate.

As example

we have a clearly Indian ‘Lakshmi’ statuette, of ivory, which was recovered from ruins of Roman Pompeii. How the native Romans interpreted it we don’t know: as the image of a slave, perhaps?  as the goddess ‘Venus? as an ordinary ‘dancing girl’? as the personal ‘idol’ of a bride brought from India? – or did some actually know the story of Lakshmi? History just doesn’t relate, and there is no basis for choosing one over another bit of guesswork..

Similarly, at present, we cannot explain the inclusion in the Rohan Hours of characteristically Buddhist-Hindu forms for the ring of guarding ‘angels’ on folio 159r, though the presence of similarly blue-faced angels in an Armenian church in Jerusalem suggests the idea and characteristics might, possibly, have arrived via Armenia. One cannot say – there’s no record, and too few examples in the western sphere to allow any sure conclusion. Interestingly, Armenian Christians had come, by this time (c.1420s) to bind their manuscripts in Latin style, i.e. with stitch-supports.

Problems of this kind are why researching really problematic imagery is the most fun for specialists of a certain type.  🙂

Some of the ‘angels’ still display the epicanthal fold, and most retain characteristically Buddhist rolls of fat on their necks. Some also display what we should call a double chin. One possibility among several is that the maker had seen some work in which an effort had been made to equate Christian with non-Christian ideas. Manichaeans and Nestorians did this and the first community to call itself Christian – the Community of Thomas in southern India – had believed it was founded in the 1stC by Christ’s apostle Thomas, a second wave of Christians arriving from Syria in about the third century owed allegiance to the ‘Nestorian’ patriarch, whose two capitals were in the fertile crescent.  All of which is suggestive, and nothing conclusive.

A further difficulty is presented when the receivers of transmitted imagery or text react negatively simply because information in it, or about it, seems to present an offence to their sense of what is personally right – their amour propre – and thus their allegiance to their own hierarchical ordering of persons or of ideas.

We have seen a hint of this mechanism at work in the way that Wilfrid Voynich, and even more William F. Friedman, approached the Voynich manuscript.

To either of them it was an idea intolerable (and thus instinctively seen as preposterous) that the manuscript’s content could be of non-European character and be a worthwhile study unless by, or at least mediated by, or owned by some high-ranking European male.

Just so, information and reasoning alone will not persuade a man who believes he has bought a seventeenth-century Cremona violin that he has an instrument sounding quite as fine but made by a nineteenth century emigre from Hungary.  His self-image is invested in the other idea, and since he is driven primarily by his beliefs, the only recourse is to refer him to some text, or person, in which he is predisposed to feel faith. He will often then accept ‘on faith’ precisely the same information.

History shows, repeatedly, that the strongest rejection of new information comes from the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy; from those with greatest self-regard and those who think truth is defined by “what everyone knows”.  Consider reactions to  the platypus, or to Darwin’s explanation of natural selection; or to a solution for the determination of Longitude.. This allows us to apply a (discardable) rule of thumb that ‘foreign matter’ will not have been first intended for the highest or lowest people in the new environment, something apparently borne out in the case of the Voynich manuscript by its materials, codicology and general presentation.

I do not think it true that personality-based decisions are necessarily a sign of the small-minded, but the pattern of history suggests that over-emphasis on personality has been one of the greatest hindrances to any intellectual advance.  It distorts the usual sense of the maxim that information is as good as its source.

Unhappily for the study, it seems that in William Friedman’s case, there was no person nor any academic field in which he placed more faith than he had in himself.  His aim was chiefly to prove his first ideas right and to ‘break’ the text.  I find no evidence  that he had any interest in the manuscript as such, nor troubled to learn anything much of manuscript studies, paleography, codicology, medieval art or even of medieval history.  And since he determined the line taken by his study groups, and thus the content, implicit biases and all, in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, his approach deeply affected what followed after just as Wilfrid’s affected it throughout most of the twentieth century.

Happily, the study is moving on, but a milder version of that ‘Cremona vs Hungarian’ reaction is still apparent.

In illustration I’ll treat a couple of astronomical motifs from two folios in other parts of the manuscript.  The one offers a nice example of alteration – in this case addition – to its original diagram. The other appears scarcely affected by the process of transmission, and occurs in another ‘ladies’ section.  Both display knowledge of the southern skies – and that is the information which seems preposterous to some.

Stars beyond the book: Crux and false Crux in the Voynich manuscript.

In English writings, and specifically in Voynich studies, there lingers a habit of taking ‘Europe’ to mean the world, a habit still so general and so ingrained that one finds entirely nonsensical generalisations made, and regularly  assented to without pause for thought.

Scarcely an eyebrow is raised, for example, by such assertions as that  “the stars of Crux were lost” or   “most star-names are Arab star names” though even a moment’s pause for thought, or turning  to read even a wiki article, should have given that speaker pause.

For a bit of perspective, the introduction by Chamberlain and Young provides a pleasant first exposure to the wider view:

  • Von Del Chamberlain and M. Jane Young (eds), Songs from the Sky: Indigenous Astronomical and Cosmological Traditions of the World, pp. 49-64.(2005)

And for an idea of how complex even the idea of ‘Arab star-names’ is and what variety such imagery could take:

On the basis of accepting the bald statement that “the stars of Crux were lost” I have seen dismissed the fact that one or both of Crux and ‘false crux’ are depicted in the Voynich manuscript.

The unvoiced chain of thought among some theorists seems to run:, ‘Since my theory is inconsistent with depiction of Crux, therefore Crux cannot be depicted in the manuscript. I shall find some way to explain it which agrees with my theory, because my theory – which is mine – cannot be wrong.” (The usual alternative produced – or more exactly created as reaction to my first publishing this information –  has been Gregory of Tours‘ cross in Cygnus, but that has never marked ‘south’ in any system, not even the Europeans’.  Efforts to hastily manufacture ‘patches’ of this sort for a theory opposed by new evidence will normally forget to consider context, or to treat as one the critical elements of  context, function  and stylistics).

A more reasonable response in such a case might be:  ‘Since no reference to Crux has been noted in any European astronomical text dated before 1440, then if Crux is depicted in the Voynich manuscript, and if the manuscript was indeed manufactured in western Europe, this knowledge would have had to come from a different type of source –  written, oral or representational.”

To say that  ‘most star-names are Arab star-names’ is also – need one say – untrue.

The Arabs did have a name for Crux – Sulbar, meaning the beam of crucifixion, but this appears to be a result of early naturalisation of an older, Tamil term Sulba, meaning the knotted measuring cord.  The illustration shown (right) may serve as mnemonic.  It is from an old fresco showing a motif of older Nubian Christianity; cross and kombologion. Below (left) is Schiller’s (reversed) image of Sulbar, from one version of his astonishingly well-informed and constantly misinterpreted and underrated ‘Christianised Heavens’.

Sulbar – a binding and weight about the wrist of Abraham in one version of Schiller’s ‘Christianised’ Heavens’

Throughout that half of the world where it was seen each night, Crux served as practical marker of the night hours, and indicator of the unmarked Southern celestial Pole. In folio 67v-i it is used as an emblem for ‘South’ – and is complemented, correctly, by the other three astronomical emblems present in that diagram.  All four are actually superfluous – the directions already marked by other emblems – and employ a very different style of drawing to the rest.

More, while the assignments of its four asterisms are not wrong in astronomical terms they are a little odd in terms of traditional custom in those regions where Crux was a well known. The tradition of the eastern Arabs was to speak of Canopus as the proverbial ‘southern Pole’ for example.  So the four astronomical emblems on that diagram are a little odd – academic and  noticeably ‘foreign’ as if taken from a globe rather than from personal habit – but still, they are not wrong.  What they are is later additions.

I date their addition  to about the 13thC, not only – but not least  -because to represent stars as detached ‘heads’ is out of keeping with the regular practice of images in this manuscript.  Here I deal with only one of the four on folio 67v-i,  the emblem for south – Crux.(upper register in illustration, below).

False Crux (lower register in illustration above).

When I spoke first of the crosses in the manuscript, I identified the form on folio 79v-i again as Crux but going over these notes almost ten years later, I should now say this second is more likely meant for what we call  ‘false crux’ and which was certainly known, if confusedly, to medieval Europe.  The older pictorial traditions in depicting it may be divided into those which envisage it as the ‘shield of the face’ (I use the longer expression deliberately), and those which have it the cover of an entry to the world below and/or as a seal upon that entry from which the dead who are not truly dead will emerge again on the last day.

‘False crux’ lies in fact between Argo ratis and Canis major but is variously positioned in the European and Arabic imagery.

It has never been included among the official constellations but was very well known. In the older traditions it receives two interpretations, each given  various expressions.  In one strand, it appears as the cover of the cavern (‘mouth’) or entryway to the world below.  Bayer seems to have understood it so, though to have been uncertain about the difference between Crux and the false crux.

In the other strand of tradition, false crux is the seal and protection of the ship and may appear as a veil, shield other barrier set between the crew and the elements.  These images often betray uncertainty about how to show the ship, going ‘backwards’ can yet being drawn by Sirius (as Aratus say it is).

The asterism’s character –  if not its form – was clearly if surprisingly best understood in medieval Europe by the illustrator who created the following image, now in an early monastic copy of Cicero’s Aratea, Brit.Lib.Harley MS 647. That section’s manufacture is attributed to northern France, possibly Rheims, though to form images of words was not a custom native to Latin Europe, and is now associated earliest with works of roughly the same date made by the Karaite Jews of Syria (near Lake Tiberius) and of Egypt. And one mustn’t forget, since this is a copy of the Aratea, that when Harranian ‘star-worshippers’ were obliged to produce their holy books, or convert to Islam, or die during the first wave of Arab conquest, Aratus’ text was among those they produced, and their knowledge of astronomy was such that members of their community  established the study in Baghdad. In latin Europe this conception of Argo ratis soon devolves.

compare with

By contrast, a celestial globe made in Mashhad, as late as the seventeenth century, preserves memory of Argo as bird-headed, and more exactly here phoenix-headed and also of the ‘veil’ as shield against the dog whose rising theoretically marked Egypt’s annual inundation and drew the ship onwards (whether by stem or stern differs). This example takes additional sigificance from the fact that certain iconographic and stylistics found in the Voynich plant pictures occur also in a few leaves within the Mashhad Dioscorides.

In this connection, the comments made by Sadeh about the links between Mosul and Diyabakir, and use of parchment in the latter during the 12thC are of considerable interest, though the role of Nestorian and other Christian scholars in those regions, and specifically in connection with the transmission of knowledge about plants and medicines passes below Sadeh’s historical horizon.

  • M.M. Sadeh, The Arabic ‘Materia Medica’ of Dioscorides (1983) esp. Ch.2 (pp. 7-19)

About those stylistic connections to the plant-pictures in Beinecke MS 408, I’m can cite no prior ‘Voynichero’, and my sources were all academic ones. I daresday one might now find examples posterior to my study, and.or illustrations re-used illustrations from my posts to Voynichimagery


I repeat…


To help with orientation… The view from the northern hemisphere –  skies visible in Alexandria,  August 22nd., 1420 AD.

‘star atlas’ style…:

The glorious reality..

Postscript:  The next post, ‘Elevated souls Pt.1’ returns to the month folios. Once this series, focused on folio 70v-i ends, I;ll return to the short ‘reading-guide’ format with relief and pleasure which, I hope, my readers will share.

A much modified, ‘planispheric’, version of Schiller’s ‘Christianised Heavens’ can be seen here.