Note: I have been delaying posting this to tweak it for months and it seems never-ending. Done is better than perfect, I guess, but please let me know if anything is unclear or if I forgot to add sources, etc…
Among the Voynich zodiac roundels, I had long assumed Virgo to be rather “normal”; that is, unusual only in that she appears to be depicted holding a star rather than a plant, and is wearing a hat. I should mention here that, as shown by Ellie Velinska, this can appear ambiguous: there are instances, including representations of Virgo, where flowers are given a decidedly star-like appearance. [Edit: sadly that page has been taken down]
However, in the Voynich roundel, the image actually also includes a proper flower, growing in the grass at Virgo’s feet, which is drawn very differently from the star. The flower is placed directly beneath the star, with the tail of the star and the flower’s stem nearly perfectly aligned. It is almost as if this flower were there as a counter-example, making it clear that this Virgo is holding something that is not a flower. Virgo also is one of three Zodiac signs to be accompanied by stars within the central roundel, the other two being Pisces and Scorpio. It can thus be concluded that it is indeed a star, not a flower, that is depicted.
Concerning the figure of Virgo itself, as is often the case in the Voynich manuscript, the blue paint doesn’t bring much to the image, but instead only makes it more difficult to see the details of the underlying drawing. In this post I will be paying absolutely no attention to this color, and will be focusing solely on the lines of the drawing. For this purpose I manually scrubbed some of the blue from the image, resulting in the image below.
The blue paint had given the illusion that Virgo’s dress was a vast billowing mess of pleated fabric. The rear part of the dress seemed to float out behind her in a strange, exaggerated way : at the back the fabric seemed to taper out not from the waist (as the skirt part of a dress would) but from the shoulderblade, while the front part of the bust is form-fitting. An unlikely combination.
Once the blue paint is removed, it becomes apparent that the dress is actually quite streamlined, and that the part extending out behind her is probably a different thing altogether. It does not actually seem to be part of the dress. It could be fabric, like a cloak or cape, or perhaps a wing.
Both might be compatible with different types of representations of Virgo, but each of these is problematic when compared to the Voynich image. There are many representations of winged Virgo, but the Voynich artist displays an understanding of basic wing anatomy in the representations of birds on f86v3: the wings are bent at the top, corresponding to the location of the joints. So it would seem that wings are not what was intended in the Virgo drawing.
Virgo is also sometimes depicted wearing a cape, which seems like it might make a more suitable candidate, but I have yet to find instances where the cape is flowing almost horizontally behind her like that.
Removing the blue paint allows us to identify a small, but potentially significant detail at the bottom part of the dress closest to the flower: it looks at first to be a c-shaped panel that curls upwards.
Virgo’s “cape” also seems to feature a second upwards curl at the back. Looking carefully at the lines, it appears that this curl is not actually part of Virgo’s cape/wing garb, or of her dress, but belongs to something else. I had to go back to my drawing board (MS Paint in this case). Here is the result:
Although the lines between the two “curls” don’t fully connect, they seem to suggest a separate item, a curved thing like a long crescent upon which Virgo stands. Could this be a crescent moon?
This might evoke the woman standing on the moon from the Book of Revelations: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head” (“et signum magnum paruit in caelo mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius et in capite eius corona stellarum duodecim“). All of these attributes were not always shown in 15th century depictions, and sometimes, the crescent moon alone was sufficient to identify her.
For comparison, here is the Voynich Virgo with the newly highlighted crescent moon next to the Apocalypse Woman from Morgan MS 484 and the Hortus Deliciarum depicition:
MorganMS484,f63r, Apocalypse, Ghent, c1475
The Morgan MS484 image is one of my favorite parallels for the Voynich Virgo, with the crescent, the anatomically incorrect wings, and the arms in a very similar pose.
Below are some more images of the Woman of the Apocalypse, showing various ways the moon and star/sun are integrated into the composition.
The first three images below show that although the Voynich tailed star is unique, the iconography of the woman of the Apocalypse includes examples of the Woman holding a sun rather than being clothed in it. If the Voynich Virgo can be described as standing on the moon and holding a sun, the analogy with the woman of the apocalypse becomes even stronger.
The Woman of the Apocalypse was interpreted by early Christians as a personification of the Church, but soon came to be conflated with Mary: “The literary identification of the mulier amicta sole with the Virgin is at least as old as the sixth-century commentary on the Apocalypse of Primesius of Hadrumetum. But not until the High Middle Ages did the substitution of Mary for the figure previously held to represent the Church gain general acceptance among exegetists” (Cutler, 1966, p.118).
Even when the other attributes of the Apocalyptic Woman are absent, Marian iconography regularly features the crescent moon, even when it is just barely peeking out from the sides of her dress or pedestal. This Marian imagery begins to appear during the late 14th Century and becomes much more prevalent in the 15th and 16th centuries. Indeed, Pope Sixtus IV proclaimed that such devotional Marian images could procure absolution: praying the rosary before one of these Virgine in Sole types of images could give one absolution for 11000 years!
This type of Marian imagery is also related to illustrations of the visions of the Tiburtine Sibyl. The depictions of the Sibyl’s apocalypstic visions, recounted in the Golden Legend and other popular medieval works, show the Virgin in the sky holding Jesus and frequently feature the crescent moon under Mary’s feet. The Sybil’s vision bridges the gap between Apocalypse imagery and Marian iconography and allow us to understand how this type of representation became prevalent in late medieval and early modern representations of the Virgin.
As Kathryn M. Rudy writes (2017, p. 162), this representation of Mary in the Vision of the Sybil was initially a geographically limited phenomenon, which was only common in the Low Countries until the end of the 15th Century.
Representations of the Woman Standing on the Moon as Mary are earliest attested in the Low Countries and Germany ( Mondischelmadonna) , but soon spread like wildfire, from France to Italy, England and eventually Spain (and later from there to the famous Virgen de Guadalupe imagery in the Americas). See the examples below:
Wooden scultpure with the Moon under Mary’s feet, Spanish early 15th C (auction)
Outside of the context of the Apocalypse and of the Vision of the Sybil, representations of Mary as the Woman standing on the Moon typically follow three themes: the Immaculate Conception imagery, the Virgo in Sole (discussed above as an icon for absolution) and the Assumption/Queen of Heaven imagery.
The Immaculate Conception is the Catholic doctrine which states that Mary herself was conceived without sin. Unlike the Virgin Birth of Jesus, this doctrine was not always held by the Church. Its emergence in the high Middle Ages was frought with debate, pitting its proponents (such as Eadmer, Duns Scotus and Bridget of Sweden) against its opponents (Bernard de Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas), until the 1431 Council of Basel finally declared the idea a “pious opinion”. No further officialization of the doctrine would take place until the 16th Century. In spite of this relatively late date for the full integration of the Immaculate Conception in the Catholic doctrine, it had become a common theme in devotional art several centuries beforehand. Many statues and illuminations attest to the importance of this theme in late medieval faith. In a great majority of these, seated or standing, with child or alone, the moon appears beneath her feet.
Robert Campin dit le maître de Flemalle, Vierge en gloire entourée de saint Pierre et de saint Augustin venérée par un donateur, huile sur bois, Flandres, XVe siècle, Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Certainly, the Voynich Virgo is lacking several attributes of both the Woman of the Apocalypse and the other Lunar Marian representations. She is not, for example, wearing a crown of stars. (Could the hat that the Voynich Virgo sports actually be a later addition, obfuscating a crown or diadem of some sort? I doubt it)
Although the Woman Standing on the Moon became associated with Marian iconography, and clearly Marian imagery was associated with Virgo imagery, the circle never seems to have been complete: Virgo imagery, as far as I know, never seems to have been borrowed from the Woman Standing on the Moon model. Perhaps the reason is that since Virgo is a sign traditionally associated with Mercury, not the Moon, an image of Virgo featuring the Moon under her feet would not be astrologically appropriate.
I will however venture a personal musing about one correspondence I see between the Voynich Virgo and the Apocalypse-derived Marian imagery. I was inspired by a 16th century text about the theme of the Virgo in Sole, which makes the following play on words: “Virgo in Sole, Sol in Virgine…” (“Virgin in Sun, Sun in Virgin”; referencing the theological reciprocal relationship between the Sun/Jesus, and Mary)… This made me wonder if a similar play on words might have motivated borrowing from the Virgo in Sole for the zodiac sign of Virgo, a time when the Sun is literally “in Virgo”.
Considering the devotional aspects of images of the Virgin in Sole mentioned earlier in this post, the Zodiac illustration for Virgo might also have provided the artist with an opportunity to integrate a powerful christian symbol. It is of interest that the blue paint has been applied in a way which obscures the crescent she stands upon: in my opinion, this reinforces the idea that the person who applied the paint either did not understand the underlying imagery, or was deliberately trying to hide it.
Perhaps my eyes deceive me when I see a crescent moon below the Voynich Virgo’s feet, but now I can’t unsee it. The use of the Woman Standing on the Moon as a model for Virgo would perhaps be the clearest sign yet of Christian influence in the Voynich illustrations.
Addendum about headgear:
Much has been written about Virgo’s headdress, which is sometimes considered masculine and compared to the hat worn by the male Gemini figure. I don’t believe this Virgo or her attire is meant to be male at all. Virgo is seldom represented wearing a hat, but there are several examples where she does wear one. As for the type of hat, the blue paint here again make it hard to understand all the details of the underlying lines.
The Voynich Virgo appears to me to have either earlobe-length curls or braids gathered at the ears, topped by a bourrelet style headdress. There may be some sort of bonnet or circlet worn beneath the bourrelet as well. These are very common in the 15th century, and exist in almost infinite variations. A few examples below, as well as two images of the Virgin sporting a fashionable bourrelet-like halo from Philadelphia Lewis E M 31:19-27 (Spain? 1450’s).
Ok, first I need to apologize to Nick Pelling for the title of this post (sorry)! But seriously, this post really is going to be about the possibility of a purse being featured in the Voynich Manuscript. I’m also in the process of rereading Nick’sCurse, and I’d forgotten how good it is: if you haven’t read it already, get it!
The object held by one of the nymphs on f76v remains unidentified. Most interpretations, such as the tentative identification as a flower, a caduceus (Patrick Lockerby), a head with bloody hair (Koen Gheuens), or a lyra (also Koen Gheuens), require either a much more fertile imagination than mine, or at least for the object to be turned upside down, and to me, don’t really explain why the nymph would be holding it upside down anyway.
A recentpostby Marco Ponzi on his blog focuses on the Indian zodiacal Decans in BNF Latin 7331 (France, 15thC). One of the images featured in his post caught my attention because of an object held by one of the characters in the 2nd decan of Scorpio. As Marco kindly explained, there is an earlier version of the same work (Morgan MS 785, Bruges, c1403) which features a variant of this image (f22r).
The object held by the “nymph” in these images, in a strikingly similar pose to the 76v one, is a purse. In this post I will argue that the object in the Voynich may be a purse, and that the way the nymph is holding it can be found, not just in the above images, but in several other medieval depictions of people holding purses. But let’s get back to the Decans.
The two manuscripts offer different texts for this same illustration: The first, which can be found at Marco’s Viridis Green blog, speaks of a woman who leaves behind her wordly possessions “The wise men of the Indians say that here rises a woman who exited her house naked, lacking of all possessions, she entered the sea”. The second, which Marco also translated, describes the image in the following terms: “an exiled planet, with a quiet face, naked, with no clothes, with money; her foot is close to a floating sea as if just arrived on dry land”. As Marco explained, both are adaptations (or rather erroneous translations) of the original Indian text, which is : “The second Decan in Scorpio is a woman with loose hair who is bound with snakes. She is robbed by thieves in the forest. With black body and completely naked she runs swiftly from a bandit, calling out terribly and shrilly”.
BNF Latin 7344 and 7330 also feature versions of the Scorpio 2 brandished purse (called a marsupium) which are reminiscent of both the pose and object we see on Voynich 76v:
Although I find that the similarities between these Decan depictions and the 76v nymph’s pose and object are striking, the rest of the imagery on the pages presents no consistent resemblance to Q13. So while I do think that they might clue us in about the nature of the object held by the 76v nymph, I don’t think she is meant to represent Scorpio or its second Decan.
Before I go any further let’s backtrack a little on the f76v object as a purse. In my interpretation this is a drawstring purse, with hanging strings or lapels draped over the sides. These purses are frequently depicted in medieval imagery, and are meant to be worn hanging from a belt. We can find examples of various sizes in 13th C French effigies at Royaumont Abbey, in the BNF 9333 (Tacuinum Sanitatis) Lettuce illustration, and in the drolleries of the Bodleian Romance of Alexander (Bodl. 264, 14thC):
More rarely, there are also examples of hanging purses with ornaments forming rows of (beads?) dots, although this trend tends to appear later: for example in Bosch’s The Cure of Folly (1490’s), in a 1470 tapestry from Basel (Glasgow Collection, or in BL Ms Douce 264 (early 1500’s, France, f26r).
BNF Francais 12899 (f157v, 14thC), the Nuernberger Hausbuch and the BNF Latin 7331 discussed by Marco Ponzi also feature hanging purses, and here we can clearly see another design, with large lateral tassels or even with smaller pouches either on the sides of the main bag or hanging off the sides as separate, smaller purses (such as the blue ones in the bottom two examples: these are specifically money-purses, pecunia).
Unlike the baggy sleeves studied by Koen Gheuens recently, the shapes of all these bags appear to have been fairly homogeneously distributed throughout Europe in the middle ages, and between the 13th and the 16th century, there doesn’t seem to have been much evolution in drawstring purse fashions, although the general tendency seems to move towards more rounded shapes. The ones featuring vertical rows of beads also seem to be a later trend, centered in the Germany/France/Switzerland area, based on the examples I found, but this may only be due to an insufficiency in my search. Certainly, there were more or less ornate and expensive variants, made from textiles ranging from the common to the exotic, and featuring contrasting colored panels and/or embroidery, but the overall shape of the drawstring purses seems to have remained fairly constant, so we can’t use the purse to pin down the Voynich image’s precise chronological/geographic origin.
I will add another possibility within the purse family of items which might make sense in the context of the other images on this page. The plague-stricken late middle ages saw the emergence of the practice of carrying sachets and pomanders, which eventually became the pomander bag, or “plague bag” in the 15th century. These hanging containers, made of metal, cloth or other materials, contained a mix of fragrant herbs, which were believed to protect the wearer from disease by shielding the respiratory system from miasma and polluted air. Pomanders and pomander bags came in a variety of shapes, although the most common ones were rounded or pear-shaped. When they were made of metal, they were pierced with holes to let the fragrance out, and attached via a loop or hook to the girdle. Below is a collage of some pomanders and pomander purses (all 15th C except for the c1600 one to the right).
Other Brandished Purses
If we consider the 76v nymph’s pose together with the purse, we can also find a figure brandishing a purse in a similar pose in the Hague RMMW 10 D 1. In this manuscript (Oresme’s translation of Aristotle’s Ethics), the illustration is repeated three times, each time representing a ransom dilemma, where the purse-holder has to choose between his father and his son, or his father and his friend, or his friend and his son.
The 1480 Annunciation by Antoniazzo Romano at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva also shows a figure with arm extended and purse: here it is the Virgin Mary, uncharacteristically represented as being busy while the Angel (not pictured here) speaks to her. The purse she holds and hands to the kneeling girl symbolizes both her dowry and her virginity.
Interestingly, the conjunction of snakes and a purse together with a nude figure, mentioned in the texts of the Indian Decan manuscripts discussed at the beginning of this post, brings us to another type of astrological iconography: Mercury.
There are of course innumerable depictions of Mercury with these attributes, from Antiquity to the Renaissance, but to keep things concise I’ll just post a few examples here, where the personification of the planet is also represented holding a similar purse with his arm outstretched. In medieval images, like the other planets, Mercury is often placed on a cloudband, a pattern I can’t help but find to visually echo the “floating sea” reference in the Morgan Scorpio 2 Decan and the floating tube the Voynich nymph stands upon.
It is noteworthy is that the representation of Mercury in the above images usually immediately follows one of Venus, pictured holding a flower, and this further conforms to the order we see in the Voynich 76v margin. But the similarities stop there, and I can’t see any further confirmation of the other marginal figures on this page as allusions to the planets.
I’m not at all convinced however, that the marginal figures in Q13M are representations of mythological or astronomical entities. To paraphrase Adam McLean’s statement about the quire, the images clearly seem to relate to the theme of bathing and health, so why would we look to other fields to interpret them? I’ll keep my hypotheses related to this field.
At the most literal level, the purse could then just be an anecdotal accessory which a woman might bring with her to the baths to carry her comb, sponge, soap, herbs/medication or other therapeutic/cosmetic items.
It is also possible that a marginal figure reprising iconography related to that of Mercury could accompany a passage about Mercurial influence in a particular bathing spot, such as the bath of Mercury at Baiae near Naples. Other baths featuring statues of this planetary god may have existed, but have not survived.
If the purse is a money-purse, bringing it to the spa might tell us something about her frequenting the place for professional reasons. But holding the purse at arm’s length seems to also be tied to iconographies relating to the giving or abandoning of one’s riches, as we see in both the Decan illustrations and the Hague MS. The 76v nymph might be a simple joke/ drollerie about how expensive a certain spa or doctor was, causing the patient to relinquish her money, or on the contrary, the illustration might reference charity and selflessness, perhaps as ideal virtues in medicinal practice.
Finally, the pomander purse option is perhaps the one I am most inclined to favor. Considering that the nymph above is holding what appears to be a fragrant flower, and that the one in the upper right corner of the page appears to be receiving particles from the air (or perhaps from a nymph on another page), I wonder if brandishing a pomander purse might fit with a page possibly relating to good and bad air, and the ways in which medieval Galenic medicine sought to prevent airborne contamination.
I’ll close this post with a thank you to Marco Ponzi for pointing me towards the Indian Decan manuscripts, and for the transcriptions and translations!
As I was researching a future post, I came across a set of techniques at the crossroads of grammar, mnemonics, cryptography and madness called scinderatio fonorum (the breaking/cutting of words). It lies at the core of the wild “grammar” devised by Virgilius Maro Grammaticus in the 7thC, which Babino (2015) describes as “poetic-philosophical encryption”. Could Virgilius’ works have inspired the creator(s) of the Voynich manuscript?
The works of Virgilius were copied, either in part or completely, in several manuscripts between the 9th and 11th centuries, and he remained quite well known, quoted and incorporated into grammatical compilations, especially in Ireland and in France, but also Germany and Italy, until the later middle ages, after which his work was only rediscovered in the late 19th C.
Virgilius’ method is somewhat akin to the Cisiojani Nick Pelling has explored since 2009. If the authors of the Cisiojani had decided to make things fiendishly complicated for their readers, they would have written them following Virgilius’ teachings. Whereas the Cisiojani abbreviate words by keeping only the first syllable, Virgilius’ scinderationes can split the words into syllables, disperse these across the line of text, fill in the rest of the line with meaningless words… unless they condense text beyond recognition. There can be many refinements, among which using homonyms and writing words or parts of words backwards are only a best-case scenario.
Virgilius lays out these methods throughout his two books, the Epitomae and the Epistolae. There were probably more, but these are now lost. At first glance, they appear to be perfectly normal grammatical treatises. But upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that he is actually distilling the principles of a method for disguising text throughout his books, spiked with a host of fanciful, eccentric linguistic inventions that seem to almost be a satire of the grammatical texts of his time.
Virgilius writes “maro-Roma-mare” to express his name : perhaps referencing the place he came from, but this is hard to ascertain. Elsewhere he writes that “Rome is Toulouse”. Was he Irish? It is almost certain that he lived there (Bracken, 2002), but was he born in Toulouse, as the Abbey of Fleury claimed in the 11thC? In Spain? Was he Jewish? His origins are debated. He continues to employ this model in various places, and Dolezalova (2009) explains that throughout Virgilius’ text, “two variants of a word often existed side by side”, something that surely rings a bell for those familiar with the Voynich Manuscript. But we’re just getting started.
Mnemonics are thrown in as well. Thus, the biblical book of Ecclesiastes is referenced as “una hasta plena oculis” (a spear full of eyes) : oculis being vaguely homophonous with “Ecclesi”, while hasta corresponds to the “astes” part. As Dolezalova notes, without the corresponding gloss, such images are mostly undecipherable.
Why devise such complex methods? Virgilius gives three reasons:
“So that we establish the acuteness of perception of our students in searching and discovering these obscure things”.
“Because of the ornamentation and construction of the speech”.
“So that mystical mysteries and those which should be apparent only to the knowing ones, would not be by chance easily found by the inferior and the stupid, so that, according to an ancient saying, the swine would not tread on precious stones”.
At the end of the Epistolae, he again gives reasons, this time admitting that “elegance” was less of a motivation than the necessity “to hide these mysteries”. Clearly then, Virgilius’ concern was akin to those that motivate encryption, and there can be no doubt about the intentionality of the obfuscation of plain text that results from applying his “grammatical” method.
Roger (1905, pp 111-126) alternatively describes Virgilius as “ingenious” but “bizarre” and “insufferably pedantic”. Vivien Law sees his work as a “plea for diversity” and innovation in grammatical studies, but also as a puzzle that may conceal mystical elements. Dolezalova prefers to conclude that “making things difficult’ may have been a very conscious mnemonic process. By not being offered the message in the most simple and straight-forward way, the audience was encouraged to think, to wonder, to interpret. Once they found the solution, it stuck in their minds better because of the efforts they had to make”. In my opinion, Virgilius’ method is a parody of grammatical studies which hides a game, a challenge to those who think themselves learned, and a toolkit for those who have true “wisdom”.
Scinderatio Fonorum 101
Want to learn how to make any plain text completely unintelligible for generations to come? Here are the basics of how to properly scinderate your fonorum. (All below adapted from Rochus’ 1931 review of Tardi’s translation and especially from Law, 1995, pp.83-97):
Virgilius claimed there are twelve kinds of Latin (by which he means there are twelve ways of writing Latin). Choose (one or several!) from the list below:
Usitata: The one commonly used
Assena: The one used by notaries. To represent a whole word it uses a single letter, and also represents it using signs [these are Tyronian notes].
Semedia: It is not completely out of use, but not completely in use either. One writes mota gelus to signify mons altus…
Numerosa: It has its own names for numbers, like nim for “one”…
Metrofia: This is the language of intelligence: dicantabat means “beginning”…
Lumbrosa: The one that lengthens. For a single word in common language, it uses a whole verse. Gabitariuum bresin galsiste ion means “to read”…
Sincolla: The one that shortens: A whole phrase is concentrated into a single word. So gears means “mend your ways and love good things”…
Belsavia: The one that switches. It changes the cases of nouns and the tenses of verbs.
Presina: The comprehensive one: A single word can be used to replace various words in the common language. Sur can mean “plain”, “mutilated”, “sword” or “river”.
Militana: The one with multiple meanings. To replace a single word one can use several alternatives. For example, gammon, sualin, rabath… mean “running”.
Spela: The lowest one. It deals only with purely material things. Gariga means a crane…
Affina/Polema: The one for speaking of the highest things. Affla means “soul”, spiridon means “spirit”…
But wait, there’s more! Now that you’ve mixed up your plain text using your chosen blend of “latin”, you can also proceed with the actual scinderatio of your text, which can take three basic forms.
“The first consists in cutting up the verses. When Cato* says: “Mare oceanum classes quod longue saepe turbatur simul navigant“, he should have said: ” Mare oceanum saepe turbatur, classes quod longae simul navigant“.
The second consists in cutting up words or syllables, as Lucan* did: ge, ues, ro, trum, quando, tum, a, fec, om, ni, libet, aeuo. And it is read like this: quandolibet uestrum gero omni aeou affectum.
The third consists in cutting up the letters themselves. Cutting up letters seems pointless, however it is used by the most subtle writers, those who chisel their style. Obviously, short words are easier to cut than long ones. Cicero* says: RRR, SS, PP, MM, NT, EE, OO, A, V, I. Which is read: Spes Romanorum perit… Emilius the rhetorician* elegantly says: SSS, SSS, SSS, SS, PP, NNNN, GGGG, RR, MM, CT, TD, CC, CC, CC, CC, CC, CC, III, II, VVVV, VVVV, EE, AE, EEEE, EE. Here is the key: Sapiens sapientiae sanguinem sugens sanguissuga uenarum recte uocandus est.”
“All parts of discourse can thus be cut up. Nouns; when you mean regmen, you can write germen… Pronouns can also be cut up: for is you write si. Verbs can also be cut up, like nodo for dono, and gelo for lego. Adverbs too, according to this example from Hilarius*: locutis summus rhei for rehi.”
Obviously, you may also indulge in dropping random syllables, but also in adding new ones within words, or even, in using only the ending of a verb instead of the whole word. Or you can scatter a word’s syllables randomly thoughout a text, like in this example from Cicero*: “omne visum ab homine CU delectabile natura stigante PI ipsi indita, ex qui non potest TUR cupidine carrere” (the scrambled word, cupitur, originally belongs after homine).
You may also scatter the letters of a word throughout a text, like Varro* does here with the pateremini which normally should go between viri and dolorem:
Bonus points: Using Virgilius’ unique “etymology”, you can also borrow characters from other alphabets to stand for words. For example, he claims that the word res is derived from the Hebrew resh, therefore you can use ר to represent res if you feel your text is still too easily accessible to the unrefined masses.
Virgilius does warn his students to apply his methods with care and not to take things too far, or it might not be possible for even a sophisticated reader to recover the original meaning: “for no problem can be solved that has not been correctly posed”.
… And there you have it, in a nutshell!
* Oh, those references I marked with a star? They don’t actually exist: Virgilius either flat out invented the authors he quotes, or made up the quotes he attributed to actual authors!
One of my favorite things about the Voynich Manuscript is that no matter how many times I’ve looked at it, every time I do there’s always something I hadn’t noticed before that jumps out at me.
In the Zodiac section, each of the signs is surrounded by circles of nymphs who hold stars… Except, some of them don’t. In this post, I’ll try to stay away from speculation and from further references to the Sneetches, and just present a brief census of those nymphs who don’t have stars.
Throughout Pisces, both Aries, and both Taurus pages, each nymph has a star, either connected by a tether (tail) or holding it directly. Things start to go awry in Gemini, where three nymphs are depicted without stars: the male-looking nymph pictured above in the outer circle, and two female-looking nymphs: one in the inner circle and the other in the outer one, both of which appear to be also missing an arm.
In two of these three cases, it appears that whoever applied the yellow ink tried to make up for this by awkwardly adding a roughly star-shaped blob of yellow ink, although this is much fainter for the one in the header image.
In Cancer, two nymphs in the second and outer circles are also each missing both a star and an arm.
Everything is back to normal in Libra, but in Leo, almost indiscernible due to the fold in the parchment and severe fading, we find another such nymph (I had to tweak this image slightly to make the lines a little clearer): No arm, no star.
In Virgo, one nymph in the inner circle is again missing both her star and her left arm.
In the inner circle of Scorpio, we find another instance of a starless, one-armed nymph, which the yellow painter has again attempted to remedy, this time also adding the tail on the star to connect to the nymph.
Finally, in Sagittarius’ outer circle, one nymph has no star and no arm. I had doubts about the nymph behind her too, but although her arm and star are faded and covered by a green blob of paint, their outline is still definitely visible, whereas for the next nymph, the parchment was clearly never marked.
EDIT: As OutsiTer pointed out in the comments, there is another nymph with an arm but no star in Sagittarius, and here the star (with tether) has been added by the yellow painter:
And that’s all. A total of only 10 out of 244 nymphs in the Zodiac section don’t have stars. Out of these 10, 8 are also missing an arm.
Initially I was inclined to search for some significance in the absence of stars. But the fact that along with the star, the arm is also missing most of the time, as well as the fact that on several occasions the yellow painter has attempted to correct this by adding stars back in later, leads me to believe that that their lack of stars is possibly an oversight by the illustrator.
In the first five pages of the Zodiac section, the nymphs are more elaborate, each drawn with various tubs and clothing, and there is still some of this in Gemini, whereas afterwards the illustrator mostly adopts a simplified, more generic style for the procession of nymphs that takes place in the second half of the Zodiac. Whether or not this transition has meaning is uncertain, although I tend to think it probably does, due to the occasional reappearance of nymphs with tubs/tubes and/or elaborate headdresses and clothing afterwards. However we can imagine that the artist grew tired of the tedious, repetitive process of drawing nymph after nymph and star after star. Illustrating the second half of the Zodiac section must have been a rather monotonous task, and I can easily envision him muttering some variation of these medieval scribes’ complaints as he completed the section.
This is not to say that the stars and arms of these nymphs are necessarily devoid of meaning. On the contrary, in this section the illustrator seems to make a point to differentiate between tailed and un-tailed stars, and even the yellow painter knows when to add a tail to a star or not when he tries to correct the illustrator’s omissions. The fact that he knows the difference is one of the reasons why I believe it is likely that the yellow painter was an integral part of the Voynich’s original creation and understood the subject matter.
If the missing stars are accidental, the results of this census might shed some light on the illustrator’s process. In my opinion, from Gemini onward, the fact that it is not just the stars but also the arms that are missing seems to indicate that unlike the more complex nymphs in the previous pages, the nymphs and stars on these pages may have been drawn in two passes: in a first pass, the body (I would guess this may have been in order to secure correct placement, to ensure that they would all fit in their circle while leaving enough room for the labels), and then in a second pass the artist went around adding each nymph’s left arm and star, forgetting one every now and then. It may even have been nymph->label->arm and star.
It seems to me that if each nymph had been drawn as a whole, left arm included, in a single pass, the arm and star would probably not have been forgotten.
But none of this is really certain, and the possibility that the absence of arms/stars is significant cannot be ruled out.
I’ve mentioned before that I have questions about the paints used in the Voynich manuscript, and that outside of the yellows and some of the reds, I see little evidence that they were added by someone who understood Voynichese. In this post I’ll dive into one of the most obvious exceptions to this, as there is one instance where there is definitive proof that whoever added at least some of the red to the Voynich was fluent in Voynichese.
This proof occurs on f67r2, which features a ring of Voynichese words written in red ink and a line of text in red ink. Where it has faded, there is no trace of underlying brown ink, so this red was definitely added by someone who knew what he was doing, as opposed to tracing over another scribe’s letters. It is the only page in the Voynich where red ink is used for writing. As noted since the earliest days of Voynich research, the text at the bottom of this page also stands out because visible ruling has been used here, and nowhere else in the manuscript.
In medieval manuscripts, writing in red ink is known as rubrication. It is found in manuscripts from the 5th century onward, although the trend tends to peter out and disappear with the advent of print. The use of red ink would highlight words which were of special importance, were different, or played a special role in the text.
This post will present some thoughts about what can be learned from the rubricated text on f67r2.
First of all, the presence of rubrication gives us an indication about the timeline of the page’s construction. According to the British Library website’s glossary, rubrics were often added by a separate scribe (the rubricator) but not always. In any case, “rubrication – sometimes done by the scribe – generally followed the laying out and writing of the text”. So the roundel and lines were traced/drawn first, then the brown text was added, then finally the red text.
In the case of 67r2, I don’t think this is a separate scribe. It is also very obvious that the red scribe was not a specialist, and found writing in red ink very challenging. However,I do think this line of text was added after the rest of the brown text on the page had been written. Planning for rubrication during the original page construction stage would justify the use of ruled lines here, as they lay out the space where the rubricated text should later be inserted.
This provides the explanation as to why this is the only place in the Voynich where the text is ruled: because it is the only place where there is rubricated text.
There is a broader aspect of the Voynich construction that can be understood from the presence of rubrication on this page. Rene Zandbergen points out that it is probable that the Q9 foldout was bound incorrectly, and indeed the presence of rubrication on a random middle page doesn’t really make sense. As noted by John Grove on the old mailing list back in 2003, the rubrication suggests that 67r2 was originally intended as the first page of this quire, like this:
This suggests that Q9 was intended to be bound like all the other foldout quires in the Voynich, with only one folio to the left of the binding and all the foldouts to the right. Grove further noted that binding it like this makes 67r1 and 68v1 face each other.
It is easy to see that these two pages do appear to be related: they have the same overall design and, when the pages are bound correctly, the faces in the central roundels are actually looking at each other. It is clear that these pages were originally meant to be facing each other once the foldout was open.
The Moons and the Star
On f67r2, red ink is used for the text, but also for the moon-like faces near the middle of the roundel.
The division of the circle into twelve sections, and the fact that each section contains what appears to be a moon face, suggest that each section may represent a month, and that 67r2 might be some sort of moon-related representation of the 12 months of the year, with the presence of 7 “labels” corresponding to the planets, as Rene Zandbergen explains here.
The problem with this is that although it seems like a straightforward explanation, known depictions of 12 moons in a roundel don’t match what we see on f67r2. The 67r2 moons do show a similar alternating colors to the first illustration below, and this parallel almost matches the YRYRYRYYRRYR pattern seen in the Voynich moons.
BSB, CLM 14456, Regensburg, 9thC, f70v
Biblioteca de Catalunya, Ms 1452, Spain, 1400-1450, f45r
However, in the above images, and more generally in moon-themed roundel illustrations (such as the Liber Floridus illustration discussed by Marco Ponzi here), the depictions of moons reflect the lunar cycle, but the moons on 67r2 don’t fit that model: they are all crescent moons, with no progression from waxing, to full, to waning, to new moon discernible.
Another factor to be considered is that both of the above illustrations show the Sun at the very top of the circle, behind the new Moon. In 67r2, there is no Sun. One might be tempted to think that here, rather than be shown behind the moons, the Sun might instead be the central figure in the roundel, however, by comparing it to other depictions of the Sun in Q9, we can clearly see that this is not the Sun: the Voynich convention always gives the Sun and Moon a face. The central figure looks like a star.
Furthermore, I don’t think the dotted line that extends to the left is a text divider. The Voynich divides circular text bands using straight, vertical bars, sometimes ornate, never with a dotted line. Rather, dotted lines in drawings are the Voynich artist’s typical way of showing movement, particularly the movement of things moving/flying/falling through the air. Remember this nymph from f76v?
It can be derived from this that the big star has moved (or appears to move) to its current position, that it has entered the circle of moons. In light of this, I looked into medieval texts about shooting-stars, meteors and comets. But if this were a meteor or comet, it has a really puny tail for its size, and observing the tail (or “hair”, coma, from which the word comet derives), and especially its orientation, was a huge part of medieval meteor prognostication, so why minimize the most important part?
Then by chance, I happened upon the following description in a chronicle by Jacobus Malvicius (Brescia, 1380-1452) : “And in those days a star of immense brilliance appeared within the circle of the moon around the first days of its separation from the Sun (Et diebus illis stella fulgoris immensa intra circulum lunae apparuit circa dies primos ipsus separatione a sole). Jacobus is not describing something he personally witnessed, but an event which occurred a full four centuries earlier: According to Umberto Dall’Olmo (1980), this is a description of the SN1054 supernova. The supernova appeared in April of 1054 and was visible at least into July (some Chinese sources say 21 months). It was brighter than any other object in the sky except for the Moon, and was even visible in daytime for three weeks. This event was visible all over the world, although in Europe, the only surviving records come from these later Italian sources.
The event is also recorded by other Italian chroniclers, who describe the appearance as an “entry” and sometimes use circuitu instead of circulum. In the 1476 Cronaca Ramona (Bologna) we can read: “At this time a very bright star entered the circuit of the new moon” (Stella clarissima in circuitu prime lune ingressa est). The Annales Cavenses describe it in almost identical terms: “At the beginning of the night a very bright star entered the circle of the moon” (Incipiente nocte stella clarissima in circulum lunae primae ingressa est). The same chronicle mentions the event again, saying “The moon, aged 12 days, was obscured, and a very bright star came into the circle of the moon” (stella clarissima venit in circulam lunae). This last entry is said to describe a lunar eclipse, which must certainly have made the new star seem even brighter.
Stephenson & Green, in the 2003 article I am quoting these from, express doubts about whether this is really AD1054, due to discrepancies in the dates given, and prefer to attribute the description to a conjunction of the moon with another bright star such as Venus. The term circuitu/circulum used by the chroniclers puzzles even the modern historians of science (see Williams, 1981). Stephenson & Green suppose it may have meant that this star was obscured by the new moon as it moved behind its disc. But this is doesn’t make sense to me: the description says the star appeared, not disappeared
For my purposes, the identification of the event itself is not of great importance. What I want to highlight is that, at the time of the Voynich’s production, a number of chronicles were written that mentioned a very bright star entering the “circle/circuit” of the Moon when it was in its first quarter. Furthermore, since the event took place four centuries before the chronicles were written, it is obvious that there is a missing link here: at least one contemporary source must have witnessed and written about the event at some point in order for Malvecius and others to know about it in the early 15th C (see Collins & Claspy, 1999, p.873.)
The memory of the 1054 event was clearly present in 15thC Europe, however, the original text that described it is only present in the form of the fragments which were used to compile chronicles. Here’s something that might please Koen Gheuens: a depiction of an elderly HRE Henry III (1017-1056) at Tivoli, pointing at what is described as a new star, in a manuscript produced in 1450 by none other than the Diebold Lauber workshop (Cod. Pal. Germ. 149, f200r). The description of the event on the next page (a most beautiful star appearing around the time of the new moon) appears to be a version of the same original text as the Rampona Chronicle (compare with Collins et al., 1999, p.4)
I see this as further confirmation that we are missing a link: one or several direct accounts of observations of the event must have existed, and must have survived until these 15thC sources which we now have. Although Stephenson & Green have expressed doubts about these descriptions, I really don’t believe that nobody in Europe looked up at the sky for the whole time SN1054 was visible, nor that everyone in Europe was ignorant enough to confuse Venus with a whole new star for several months. Indeed, Collins & Claspy suggest that the original texts of this observation may have been largely suppressed by the Catholic Church: Comets and other celestial anomalies were seen as bad omens, and SN1054 coincided with the excommunication of the Eastern Patriarch which would lead to the Great Schism, so it is possible that the legates “would have preferred that such arguments and their visible proof not to be subsequently noted in the West” (op.cit, p. 880).
It is very tempting to consider that the circuit of the young moon which is described in these texts could be represented by an artist as a circle of crescent moons representing the Moon’s orbit (Bede, for example, uses the terms circulum and circuitum interchangeably in his texts, whether describing the Moon’s movements or those of the Zodiac). Such an illustration might show a “new star” (well, actually a dying one, but they wouldn’t have known that) being born into the sky at the time of the new moon, in the path of its orbit.
There is something about the birth of a star that, in my view, fits rather well as a first page introduction to the imagery we see in Q9. Indeed, in some astronomical works, the description of comets, shooting-stars and other celestial mirabilia is placed at the beginning of the section on stars (see for example, Hyginus’ Astronomica).
The Rubricated Text
Rubrication was typically used in the following contexts:
Initial letters and Item/paragraph markers
Titles and chapter headings
In calendars, to denote special feast days in a vertical list
In diagrams, in alternation with black words, to distinguish nearby labels
To highlight important/special words in the text
To set apart notes, translations/foreign words or instructions to the reader.
Let’s consider the line of text in the bottom section of the page. It might seem like a strange place to start, but please bear with me:
The first notable thing about this red line is that it is very probably a meaningful unit. As mentioned in the commentary to the interlinear translation, this is highly likely to be a sentence. This could turn out to be extremely useful, as one of the challenges posed by the lack of punctuation in the Voynich is that we have never been sure of how to isolate a sentence within the text. If there are any good candidates for sentences in the Voynich manuscript, this is the most obvious one. I am not so sure about the brown text above and below. These two lines could also be sentences, but it is less certain.
The rubricated line begins with the understated “sshey“. This is not at all unusual. As Emma May Smith explains, it is common for linefirst words to begin with EVA s: “Although one of the strongest linefirst letters (57.5% of all tokens beginning with <s> are linefirst), the kinds of words which come at the beginning of lines are mostly the same as those found in the whole text. There does not seem to be a further pattern except its heavy initial occurrence”.
In light of this, the first word,ssheyis interesting becausessheynever occurs anywhere else other than in a linefirst position. There are only 7 occurrences ofssheyin the Voynich, and they are all linefirst. In fact, 100% of the words that begin with “ss” are linefirst words.
Although it is rubricated, this line of red text does not appear to be the header for a new paragraph or section: It lacks any kind of Grove word or fancy gallows and it begins like any other middle of the paragraph line. This informs us that for the Voynich scribe, the rules of text and line construction do not vary, no matter what color the text is.
It is also worth noting that the words in this red line are very rare in the Voynich text. The most common one occurs only 26 times in the manuscript, two are unique, and the others appear only 6 or 2 times. While it is normal for Voynichese lines of text to contain a few unique words, they also generally include some very frequent words: this one doesn’t.
Keeping this in mind, let’s now look at the other red text on the page, the outer circle of the roundel.
The base transcription here is again from voynichese.com (Takahashi) but I’ve added some alternative readings in parentheses where I didn’t agree with it. In the first two cases, the alternatives are by Grove. In the third instance, it is by Stolfi, and I am absolutely sure his version is correct: that’s a k, not an f. Also, I’ve added exclamation marks to words where I think all transcriptions are incorrect: the d inykeody is probably a g or an m, as it appears to have a tail, and both d’s in dchetdy are wrong, in my view – again I think we might be dealing with g’s, or in the case of the first d, perhaps even an l.
Some of the glyphs are quite hard to ascertain due to ink blobs and other malformations, and it is obvious that the scribe struggled with the red ink here even more than in the straight line. This again confirms that the scribe is not a separate rubrication specialist.
Another limit to the study of this red text is that there is some doubt about whether these red words are individual “labels” or if they are just spread out in a way that gives that impression. As Rene Zandbergen notes in the interlinear transcription, they are more or less aligned with the 12 sections that divide the circle, but not perfectly so. I’ll add that there is no divider drawn between them, nor is there a start/finish marker that would indicate a continuous line of circular text. Each “label” word (or group of words) begins with a valid, fairly common “linefirst” character: y, s, o… Looking up first/last combinations on Emma May Smith’s blog, the last/first combination frequencies for words within these “labels” are not different than those for words across the “labels”. So, I’ll leave it at “although they don’t seem to be a continuous line of text, we can’t really be sure”.
In spite of these caveats, this circular red text, when considered along with the red line of text below, reveals some interesting things about what is going on in this page.
The first observation is that the red circular text, like the red line at the bottom, gets no special treatment from the scribe. This red text contains no Grove words, and several potential normal linefirst word beginnings. This confirms the reading order for circular text in the Voynich manuscript: from the inside out. The innermost lines of brown text in the circle features lots of the kind of gallows we might expect for a first line. Therefore, the red line of text is not the title of the diagram, nor of its sections.
The 67r2 Text: a Strange Divide
As is well-known by Voynich researchers, the Voynich manuscript’s text roughly falls into two big “Currier languages“: A and B. Running through the list of criteria for each, Quire 9, and therefore 67r2, appears to generally be considered neither, or somewhere in between the two. Julian Bunn, in a study of glyph frequencies across the Voynich, unfortunately does not map any folios from Q9.
Taken as a whole, 67r2 presents characteristics of both “languages”: for example, it contains 24 instances of “ar”, 17 of “ol” and 9 of “ey”, which would make it more of a Currier B page. However, it also presents plenty of “chy” which is more characteristic of A, and only one lonely “ed”, the rarity of which is a hallmark of A “language” pages.
Examining f67r2 however, I noticed something unusual. While the words on the page display properties of both Currier A and B, this only holds true when we consider the page as a whole. Upon closer inspection, the characteristics of the texts in brown ink are actually quite clearly different from those of the text in red ink.
For instance, while the whole page shows 22 occurrences of aiin, only one of these is in the red text (it is in the lower line of red text; for contrast, the brown lines of text right above and below it contain a healthy 4 and 3 instances of aiin). There are 7 instances of ain, all in the brown text. This also applies to oiin: 4 instances, all in brown. There are 8 instances of “chol” again all in the brown text, and if we expand that to “ol” then there are 17 occurrences, 16 of which are in the brown text.
The red text is devoid of any gallows other than k (except for one lone t), whereas the rest of the page abounds with t (22), f (7) and p (7). While the red text does contain similarities to Currier B, such as relatively high e’s and a standalone r, it lacks the typical “edy” combinations that would be expected for Currier B. Instead, the red text presents sequences dominated by strings of combinations of the characters k, ch, and y, especially in the circular red text where extreme strings such as ykchykchey ykchys and chky chykchr chy can be found. While similar (but not so extreme) sequences are present elsewhere in the Voynich in Currier A folios, they don’t occur at all in the brown text on the same page.
I want to insist here on the fact that what is odd about this is not the fact that the red text should present a given mix of A and B, or even, really, the combinations of characters themselves. What is very unexpected is that it presents such different properties from the brown text on the same page.
What could explain this? The scribe doesn’t apply different rules to the construction of red text units: he used the same system to generate both. In my opinion, this might reflect the fact that something about the underlying plaintext causes the resulting red Voynichese to be clearly unlike the brown text on the same page.
A multi-lingual page?
It has been suggested that the difference between Currier A and B could reflect different plaintext dialects. However the fact that the two appear to blend in various parts of the manuscript which display properties of both and neither, could argue instead in favor of A, B, and their variants reflecting different methods of expressing the underlying text.
But on 67v2, the presence of a difference between two statistically distinct units of text on a single folio, and furthermore, the fact that one of these is written in rubricated text, leads me to the hypothesis that these just might be two actual plaintext languages, which are expressed in the same Currier “language”.
This brings me to one of the possibilities held within option 7 in the list: rubrication to set apart translated text or text in a different language. We can find this in numerous medieval manuscripts, either in the form of notes, which are generally marginal or squeezed in between the lines of the original text by a later owner, or as an integral part of a bilingual work. In this latter case, the rubricated text has been planned for: it is not just an addendum.
For example, the late 14thC manuscript below, is in three languages: English, Latin and French. In the rubricated text, John Gower apologizes in Latin, explaining that he is English and that his command of French is imperfect. A longer version of the apology follows, in French.
In the example above, we can see that a couple of words in both versions are very similar, as Latin and French are related languages. This is what we observe in f67r2: the red text is clearly different from the brown one, but still related in many ways.
Another example can be found in these bilingual psalters from England, where the lines of Latin text alternate with rubricated lines in Old English throughout the manuscript
Cambridge UL, Ms Ff. 1.23, 1025-1050, f.131v.
BL Ms Harley 1896, c1450, f16r
This alternation is reminiscent of what we see in the block of text at the bottom of 67r2, which raises the possibility that the red text here could be a translation or version of the text in one or both of the brown lines of text.
Similar uses of rubrication do not signal a direct translation, but differentiate incorporated text written in different languages. This can also be found in medieval scientific works, such as this example from Southern Germany c 1410, which features several illustrated folios in which the German text is in black and the Latin is in red (LoC, Rosenwald Ms 4):
The Seven Planets
The Wheel of Fortune
Another possibility might be that one of the languages on this page actually expresses a large proportion of numbers, and the other mostly real words.
I will readily admit that analyzing the text is not my strong suit, but in this post I really wanted to look at every aspect of this page. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are flaws and errors in my analysis. I welcome any comments and critiques from anyone with a better understanding of the Currier languages, and indeed a better grasp of the properties of Voynichese in general!
P.S: The lunar phases might however be depicted in a non-sequential way in Q9. If we rebind it following Grove’s suggestion, the images below could perhaps show the moon in four different states, respectively: waxing/waning, full and new:
In a recent post, I wrote about how the Voynich Sagittarius’ pose might be explained by the illustrator choosing to represent him pointing his arrow towards a specific star/nymph, the only one holding her star low. If we follow the layout of star maps, the nymph would be in the right place to represent Antares or another star in Scorpio, low on the ecliptic and facing Sagittarius’ arrow.
There are a few more curious coincidences in the Zodiac section, some of which I will present here.
Dark Taurus: It’s hard to see because of a hole in the page, but one of the nymphs in the inner circle (the only one on the page that is not nude) appears to have an unusually long arm.
When I noticed it, this immediately reminded me of the depictions of Orion that are found in medieval Arabic astronomical illustrations, and later in the Alphonsine manuscripts and their adaptations throughout Europe. Orion is either depicted as having a particularly long “sleeve” (which the Arabic astronomers called al-Kumm) or in some of the Alphonsine versions, as holding some sort of long cloth. This iconographic tradition persisted alongside others, well into the 16th C.
Orion in the Sufi Latinus, Italy (Bologna), c1250-1275, BNF Arsenal 1036, f36r
The position of this “nymph” in the composition, facing Taurus, is also identical to the position of Orion relative to Taurus in star charts. Orion is an easy constellation to find in the sky, and it can be used to locate Taurus. Isidore of Seville connects the two: “Orion astrum ante Tauri vestigia fulget“.
It could just be that the artist was trying to avoid the hole (if it was there before the drawing was made) and so made the arm longer to make room for the star. It seems to me that the hole was there before the drawing, but got larger and more frayed around the edges over time.
But in that case, why not shift the entire composition so that the hole wasn’t in the way, like he did on the reverse side (f72v1)? There would have been ample room to do that. It could be that he drew her there, in spite of the hole, to ensure that Orion was placed before the hooves of Taurus, as per Isidore’s description.
Dark Aries is another folio which features interesting coincidences.
The nymph directly above Aries’ head is depicted inside a barrel which is decorated with an angular pattern, which forms a triangle. The placement of this triangle shape right above Aries reflects the way the constellations of Aries and the Triangle are laid out on star charts and in medieval astronomy books. Aratus wrote that when the moon was bright, Aries could be located in sky the by finding the Triangle first, and in spite of Hipparchus’ objection that the stars of Aries are actually brighter than those in Triangulum, the idea that Triangulum was a signifier of Aries, also found in Hyginus, was repeated throughout medieval manuscripts. The phrase “Aries infra Deltoton“, was copied over and over (and sometimes rather miscopied, see Lippincott, 2006, p.21), and in the Voynich manuscript, we do indeed find Aries infra Deltoton: under a triangle.
The placement of a tub decorated with triangular forms above the head of Aries may well be a complete coincidence. It could also be that the illustrator, while decorating the tubs with random patterns, reached the one above the head of Aries and decided that a triangular design would be fitting for this one due the astronomical tradition of depicting Aries infra Deltoton. But it might just be also, that the nymph in that tub is meant to actually represent the constellation Triangulum, or one of its stars.
In many manuscripts, we find Triangulum in between the constellations of Aries and Pisces, mirroring the layout in the sky. Interestingly, in the Voynich a triangle pattern is also found on another barrel, near the bottom fish on the Pisces page (see above, flipped upwards for viewing convenience). The fact that the triangle motif is found on both of these pages, near the constellations that Triangulum actually neighbors in the sky, is something I found noteworthy.
Although I was hesitant to add this one, here’s another coincidence about the Dark Aries page. Right next to the posited “Triangulum”, there is another figure which looks distinctly male, wearing a cap. The tail to his star is unique: it is striped, and almost like a cape or scarf, it extends from behind his neck rather than being held. In the sky, right next to Triangulum, we find the constellation Perseus, often depicted nude except for a cap and a cape extending behind his neck.
That is as far as I’m going to go with this, although there are actually a few more such examples. A couple of coincidences is far from enough to make a statement about the way the whole Zodiac section works, and I don’t want to be guided by a theory, only to end up desperately stretching and twisting things to get every nymph or tub in this section to “fit” a constellation, so for now I’ll simply say that these are remarkable coincidences.
Additionally, even if these are intentional, it does not mean they necessarily form part of a system, or relate to the text. The illustrator could have added these touches as a reflection of his astronomical knowledge, spicing up otherwise repetitive work, and they may not be relevant to the overall meaning of the illustrations.
The examples discussed in this post struck me as worthy of presenting, but I can’t be sure that any of them are significant, and so far I have not found any consistent system throughout the whole zodiac section that would confirm these interpretations. The fact that the iconographic program is simplified after the first few pages of the Zodiac section would suggest a lack of such consistency throughout the section anyway.
As I’ve often stated before, I don’t consider the colors in the Voynich Manuscript to be relevant. Except perhaps the yellow, and some of the red, I don’t see any evidence that the person who added them understood the text. The blues, intentionally or not, often hide details that the illustrator had taken the time to draw, especially in Q13, so I regard it as particularly suspect, and ignore blue completely. One day I’ll write a detailed post about my views on colors in the Voynich Manuscript, but for now, let’s just say I mostly ignore the colors.
The Voynich Pisces consists of two fish heading in opposite directions. So far, nothing unusual. Each fish has a tailed star connected to its mouth, and that’s very, very unusual. It is frequently stated that another unusual feature of the Voynich Pisces is that the two fish are connected by a line, but that unlike in most representations of Pisces,this line runs outside, rather than in between the two fish. This is where I disagree.
There is no line connecting those fish.
Let’s take a closer look:
The supposed line is an impression entirely created by the blue paint. I don’t see any evidence of a brown line drawn by the illustrator underneath it. The artist originally didn’t connect the two fish.
Let’s clean up the image and remove some of that distracting blue paint to see what the Voynich Pisces was originally designed to look like.
We are left with two unlinked fish, each connected to a star.
This process reveals two interesting bits of information. First it shows that the Voynich artist comes from a culture, or is copying from a model, where Pisces is represented as two fish that are not connected by a line. There are several examples of Pisces as two unconnected, long-snouted, head-to-tail fish, although these are rare. I have found them only in manuscripts from France and from the Lake Constance area. If we add the criteria of these fish being in a roundel, then 100% of the ones I’ve found so far are from the Germany/Austria/Switzerland region. These long-snouted, unconnected Pisces seem to be a very distinctive style, specific to that area.
It also suggests that the person who added the blue may not have shared this background, and thus may have attempted to correct what he may have seen as a mistake and tried to connect the fish to better reflect a version of Pisces he was familiar with. He may have used an outside line either to try to reflect the actual configuration in the sky, or because he didn’t have enough room in between the fish to draw the usual S-shaped line. The latter scenario raises the possibility that the blue paint was added after the “mars” label.
It’s also possible that the blue line is only supposed to indicate that the fish are in water, which would also explain why the painter added blue on top of the fish, to show them as underwater.
Even if we were to consider the blue line as valid, it is worth mentioning that it doesn’t actually connect the fish. It only sort of wraps around them. It is not connected at either end to the fish or to the stars or to the stars’ tails.
Therefore the misleading blue line is best ignored. If we are looking for a match for the Voynich Pisces, the fish should not be connected to each other at all.
In closing, I’d like to draw attention to some images which are not of Pisces but of stars in the constellation of Cetus, from a 15th Century German MS which the Warburg Iconographic Database unfortunately only references as “Vienna, Collection Gutmann, Calendarium“. It really does seem to be a fascinating manuscript, especially in relation to the Voynich Zodiac pages, and I wish I could find more information about it and better scans.
Here is Menkar, with an almost perfect match to the Voynich fish. Note the snout, scales, fins, tail, and of course the star (the nearby “nymphs” are also interesting):
On the same page there is another fish with a star, which is unnamed:
And a few pages later (32r), another star from Cetus, Deneb Kaitos:
Following a recent post on Nick Pelling’s website, I was scouring the Voynich nymphs once again to try and decide which one is my favorite, and the search led me to an observation which I would like to share here.
(Before I begin, I want to apologize for the unanswered comments to my last post! I have been away from home for a long time and need to get back to some of my source material to provide proper answers and also to finish writing up part 3 of that series of posts. Hopefully that can happen next month…)
Several Voynich bloggers and researchers have looked into various aspects of the f73v Sagittarius’s clothing, facial hair, weapon and pose (see for example the 2003 crossbow analysis by Jens Sensfelder over at ciphermysteries.com, or these blogposts by JK Petersen, or the work done by Marco Ponzi and Darren Worley on Stephen Bax’s blog, or the many discussions on the subject on the forum).
I would like to entertain a different angle on the Voynich Sagittarius’ pose, based on the overall composition of the roundel illustration in relation to the circle of nymphs around it.
First of all, if we focus on the surrounding nymphs, we can see that the layout is unusual. Starting at about 11 o’clock, they are all oddly squished together, which is strange, as by the time he created the Sagittarius page, the illustrator would surely have become used to placing 10 nymphs in the innermost circle, as he does easily on f72v1, and without too much difficulty in 73r. Elsewhere, there can be up to 14 nymphs in the inner circle. It can also be noted that the illustration on 73v isn’t limited by the size of the page (there would have been room to draw a slightly bigger circle) nor by the presence of neighboring illustrations (such as in the Gemini/Cancer foldout). The cramped quarters of the initial nymphs may well be deliberate, which might indicate that something else is going on. It might be ok for these nymphs to be packed together like sardines if it ensures the correct placement of another, more important nymph.
Let’s get back to the crossbowman. His arrow points directly towards a nymph at around 8 o’clock. This nymph is remarkable: out of all the human figures in the zodiac section, she is the only one who holds her star with her arm stretched downwards. There is no apparent reason for her to do this: there would have been ample room for the artist to draw her in the Classic or Brandish pose. Could Sagittarius’ unusual pose actually be an indication, pointing towards this nymph?
Why might this nymph be holding her star like this, and why would she warrant a special nod from the crossbowman? Here’s one theory:
The nymph at 11 o’clock in the inner circle seems to be the first one that was drawn, and among Voynich researchers there appears to be some consensus that the order of the nymphs on any given zodiac page should be read from the inside out (inner circle first, outer second, additional top nymphs last).
If we begin counting the days of Sagittarius following this plan, the 11 o’clock nymph (n°1) becomes November 22nd, and eight nymph-days later, the downwards star nymph (n°9) is November 30th. November 30th is the last day of the liturgical year, St Andrew’s day, which was and still is widely celebrated by Christians of all denominations around the world. It is immediately followed by the fist day of the next liturgical year, aka the first day of Advent, and indeed the next nymph, the tenth one in the inner circle, can be seen holding her star up high.
Of course the apparent interaction between Sagittarius and Nymph n°9 might just be coincidental, or it could be some sort of drollerie-style naughty joke, but the theory I’ve presented here just might explain both the nymph’s pose and the crossbowman’s pose as a coherent whole. The crossbowman might be drawn in this way so that his arrow can behave like the hand of a clock, marking an important time: St Andrew’s day, the end of the liturgical year, and the transition to the beginning of Advent, the new year.
In any case, for now this means that Sagittarius Nymph n°9 will have my vote in Nick Pelling’s Best Nymph poll!
Edit: In light of Rene Zandbergen’s comment below, I have to revise my opinion, as the dates for Sagittarius were different at the time of the Voynich manuscript’s creation. Instead, could the position of the crossbowman’s arrow reflect Sagittarius’ orientation in the sky? If we look at the constellation Sagittarius in the sky, it has its’ arrow pointing towards Scorpius, so might Nymph n°9 represent Antares, or another star in Scorpio?
Edit 2: Marco Ponzi recently directed me to this amazing picture of a (undated) Mongolian volvelle featuring a bow and arrow:
One of the arguments against the idea that the Q13M illustrations in the lateral margins belong to the drollery family of illustrations (which I explored in my last post) is the fact that the Voynich figures are labeled.
In this post I would like to present a few refinements to this notion, and also look at what kind of information we can glean from labeled drolleries.
First of all, let’s look at the actual frequency of labels in Q13M.
Pages with systematic labels: 77r.
Pages where only some of the figures have labels: 77v, 80r, 82r&v, 83r&v.
Pages without labels: 76v, 79r&v, 80v.
Total systematically labeled pages in Q13M: 1
Total partially labeled pages in Q13M: 6
Total unlabeled pages in Q13M: 3
It should be noted that the folios of Q13M are much more likely to have either no labels (3 out of 10) or only partial ones (6 out of 10). Why are some figures labeled and not others? The coexistence of labeled and unlabeled figures on the same folios deserves more attention.
Counting labeled vs unlabeled figures for Q13M, out of a total of 87 human figures, only 34 are labeled. The majority of the Q13M figures are therefore not labeled.
Of those 34, only 5 occur in the lateral margins. All the others are either in the haut-de-page or bas-de-page illustrations.
Such proportions cannot be insignificant: the fact that the upper and lower marginal illustrations almost always contain labels, but the lateral ones almost never do, cannot be ignored when we analyze the Q13M illustrations.
What we can see is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, the marginal nymphs are not labeled. The labels in Q13M are almost always present near nymphs who are in the haut-de-page or bas-de-page illustrations. Voynich f80r is a particularly good example of this: there is a profusion of labels in the upper margin scene, but none near any of the side margin figures.
With these numbers in mind, let’s get back to the subject of drolleries. First of all, while it is true that most of the time drolleries were not labeled, this is not always the case, as in the example below.
The layout of labeled vs unlabeled illustrations in Q13M actually matches up quite well with what can be observed in other illuminated manuscripts, such as BNF NAL 3255. The bas-de-page scenes are not drolleries: they illustrate subjects that are related to the overall main theme of Christianity, but are not an illustration of the text on the page; while the Breviary contains prayers, the illustrations refer to core concepts and rituals of Christianity, saints, virtues, etc. They have labels which make the reference explicit for the reader. The unlabeled illustrations in the lateral margins are drolleries: they are unlabeled because they have no purpose other than to decorate the page and amuse the reader.
BNF NAL 3134, a book of hours, shows another type of labeled drolleries: here again the lateral margins are unlabeled and pure fantasy, but the bas-de-page ones comically illustrate popular expressions and local proverbs, which are written out in the adjoining labels.
Another type of labeled drollerie is found in BNF Latin 10435, a psalter from Picardy. Here again, the true drolleries are unlabeled, while the bas-de-page illustrations are labeled in red. The scenes depicted in the bottom margins are meant to be charming or slightly silly, and unrelated to the text. The characters in them are labeled with names and titles: they are contemporary people from Picardy, presumably friends and acquaintances of the patron. It is interesting to note that in this case, the labeling is the only thing that sets apart these “portraits” from the drolleries: the characters are indistinguishable, pictured in similar dress and poses, aside from the fact that the portraits are labeled. It is almost as if the labels had been added afterwards, with the identifications serving to further amuse the patron. In this example the labels do not denote an illustration that is intrinsically more significant than the others, but rather, the addition of the label itself is what confers special, personal meaning to an otherwise mundane drollery.
My tentative conclusion to this exploration is that the scenes which take place in the upper and lower margins of Q13 may be actual illustrations of significant material, which may be direct illustrations of the main text, or may tell a completely different story like the proverbs of BNF NAL 3134. The figures in the side margins, however, may very well be pure drollery. They keep with the nude bathing theme of Q13, in the same way that the characters dressed as nuns in the drolleries of books of Hours echo its religious content, but like the playful nuns, they are not an illustration of the text. The labels are the only thing that differentiate them from the nymphs in the upper and lower margins, just like the characters which populate the margins of BNF Lat 10435.
Further support for the idea that the lateral marginal nymphs of Q13M are drolleries is the fact that the side-margin figures tend to recur: the ring bearer, the Thing holder, etc, are repeated and also their poses are repeated even when the objects they hold vary. Jean Wirth, in his massive tome¹ about drolleries, laid down the rules of drollery identification. Among them, the following one is particularly useful here: “We shall therefore establish a second rule for interpretation: The possibility of an allusion is inversely proportional to the frequency of the iconographic motif” (p.21): in other words, the more often a marginal figure’s form is repeated within a manuscript, the higher the probability that it does not in fact allude to anything significant. This runs counter to the way the Q13M nymphs have been analyzed so far, including in my own initial post on this blog: the impulse is to think that if a form is occurs repeatedly, it must be significant. In the world of drolleries, the opposite is true.
We can easily see this in the repetition of nearly identical figures in the side margins of the manuscripts shown in my previous post, which are meaningless, while the one-off depiction of a scene (usually in the bas-de-page) is generally significant, either connected to the main text or to another narrative or reference.
How does this help us with the Voynich manuscript? The repeated motif of unlabeled nymphs brandishing objects in the side margins of Q13M also seems to point towards their lack of allusion to a reference, either within the text or outside of it. The very unique, labeled scenes that take place in the larger, more populous illustrations in the upper and lower margins of Q13M, however, are much more likely to be references to something within the text, to other texts, or to real people and cultural references relevant to the place and time of the manuscript’s manufacture.
¹Wirth, J; Les Marges à drôleries des manuscrits gothiques, Droz, 2008.
The illustrations in Quire 13 have inspired many interpretations and theories over the years, often based on the assumption that these images are directly related to the subject matter of the text, that they literally illustrate the text.
What I would like to explore here is the possibility that they might not. Or at least, not really. It might seem like an unpleasant perspective, and it is not something that I myself am convinced of. But it seems to me that Voynicheros, myself included, have wanted so badly to try to glean insight on the text from any possible visual clue in MS408’s pages, that we have turned a blind eye to the possibility that the marginal illustrations in Q13M might not in fact illustrate the text. They seem so lively and well thought out, and some of them recur throughout the quire: surely they must help us shed light on the neighboring text? Maybe not.
As I explored in a recent post, fluid flows in the marginal Psalters evolved from a literal depiction of Biblical passages to a decorative framing device, which did not necessarily reflect anything in the text. In this post, I will present some elements that suggest that the nymphs and the various contraptions in the margins of Q13M could similarly be quite far removed from any relevance to the text, but might instead serve as a decorative and amusing framing device. I was prompted to take this journey when noticing that in several manuscripts, fluid flows were quite often part of framing systems which included drolleries.
The general layout of the Q13M illustrations, the poses and actions of the people depicted in the margins, and some of their stylistic elements, actually fit rather well into the medieval genre of manuscript illustrations known as drolleries.
Evolving out of the practice of marginal annotations and drawings, marginal illuminations can reflect a range of styles, from minimally embellished initials and bar borders only, to entire frames of densely woven flowers and curlicues that form a full rectangle of ornamentation around the text.
What we see in the Voynich corresponds to neither of these extremes: the lateral marginalia in Q13M are mostly isolated little scenes, which are not set against a florid or geometric background but appear in a limited decor of tubes and flows which the “nymphs” interact with. Their actions appear purposeful, yet inexplicable, almost absurd.
Where could this all fit into medieval art history? It might be placed within the tradition of drolleries and other pleasantries and grotesques in medieval manuscripts, which departed from the other genres of marginalia and of miniature illustration and brought to life the previously boring margins and bas-de-pages, a trend that would later lead to the advent of the first Genre paintings in the Netherlands, and eventually inspire Bosch.
Drolleries were a fashion in manuscript illumination which were in style roughly from the 13thC to the late 15thC, originating in England and rapidly spreading to what are today France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany, then Spain and beyond. According to Erwin Panofsky¹: “Among the most impressive and engaging English inventions…are the drolleries. Based on the fables or the exempla used by preachers but as often derived from actual experience or sheer imagination… they run the whole gamut from sharply observed reality to the grotesque, the scurrilous and the fantasmagoric”.
Michael Camille analyses the spirit and intent behind the drollery in a dedicated study². Camille refers to the art of the margins as “the pregnant page” (p.48), and tells us that “marginal art is about the anxiety of nomination and the problem of signifying nothing in order to give birth to meaning at the centre”. I will be examining Q13M as a collection of such “pregnant pages”: if they are drolleries, can examining the Q13M drawings still give us any insights about the main text? Yes, albeit in a roundabout, limited way.
The illuminators enhanced marginalia with human and animal figures that typically presented a silly or humorous appearance, hence their name. Often, these were human-animal hybrids, or human-plant hybrids, although plain humans and especially human nudity were a regular theme. Frequently, they were engaged in nonsensical, grotesque or slightly naughty activities. Depending on the patron’s wishes and the artist’s inspiration, the drolleries could range from charming to absurd to obscene, or thinly veiled political allusions. They rarely had any relation to the text, or only in the vaguest sense: they certainly were never simply illustrations of the text’s content.
f218v, Morgan Ms G. 7, Breviary, Hungary, 1481
219r, Morgan Ms G. 7, Breviary, Hungary, 1481
219r, Morgan Ms G 7, Breviary, Hungary, 1481
But sometimes drolleries did relate to the text, they just did so in a playful way: For an insight into how this worked, I turn to an example provided in Camille’s study: “Below Psalm 67, a young male figure bends over to expose his buttocks to the lance of an equestrian monkey. This might be a play on the word iuvencularum on the line above (iuvenis, young man, combined with cul)” (p.43). It might be that the Voynich Q13M margins “illustrate” the text in a similar way: by playing with homophony.
It may seem a bit anticlimactic to consider that the marginal figures in Q13M could be related to such a whimsical collection of jokes and puns. By comparison with the rest of the Voynich manuscript, the layout of the Q13M illustrations perfectly mirrors Panofsky’s observations about English drolleries: “In the same schools in which we find drolleries at their liveliest… in the same manuscript, the principal pictures are dominated by a solemn formality approaching the hieratic”. This contrast is also true of the Voynich, where outside of Q13M marginalia, the other illustrations are marked by exactly this type of stiffness, an observation I had already made in my post discussing the reordering of Q13 and the difference between the active, vigorous nymphs of 13M and the more static ones bathing in the 13C pages, but it is more widely true if we compare them to the figures which populate the rest of the manuscript.
The iconography of drolleries and other marginal amusements, can shed light on the influences behind the Voynich marginal illustrations. They help to make sense of the nudity, the angry hairdressing, the spindles and the giant rings and even the unidentifiable animal: hybrid and fantastical animals were very common in drolleries.
Bas-de-page, Royal MS 10 E IV, Decretals of Gregory IX, c.1320, illustrated in England, f29v. Thanks to Marco P. for this image!
Bas-de-page, f63r, BL Add Ms 42130, aka the Luttrell Psalter
The drollerie happens within a marginal context which reflects the style of its time: the first drolleries appear as isolated figures against the bare page, whereas later on, as the margins become more filled with ornamentation, they appear within broad, intricately decorated backgrounds and bas-de-pages.
The type of marginal illustration placement we see in the Voynich and the nymphs’ engagement within a limited environment of pedestals, tubs and tubes, with some more extensive upper and lower margin scenes, corresponds to an intermediate style of drollerie: the text is not entirely enclosed by a marginal frame, nor are the marginal illustrations limited to ornate initials, curlicue bands or bar borders.
Studying the history of marginalia, one place where we find manuscripts with identical organization of marginal character placement is in some of the drollerie-rich MS’s of the early 14th C from Northern France and Flanders, and especially the region of Ghent. Let’s take a closer look at a few of these.
Providing a rare example of water pumps used as marginalia decorations, a Book of Hours described as “in an example of abject mechanical magic… cooking pots boil and pour water of their own accord” (Camille, op.cit, p.50). Nothing to do with the Hours of the Holy Spirit in the text: if anything, the drolleries are an inversion of it, providing the absurd as a remedy to the serious theological subject.
Life in the lateral margins is not really about the text. It is meant to be a whimsical distraction which may in some way relate to the text but only in the vaguest way: in Walters MS 87, none of the scenes being played out in the margins relate to the text of this Book of Hours in any way other than the fact that the figures are sometimes dressed as priests and nuns. The marginalia are not an illustration of the adjacent text in the Book of Hours at all.
Walters MS 87 offers a wealth of examples of marginal figures placed on the upper left hand corner of the page with one outstretched arm brandishing an object, very reminiscent of the placement and attitude of several Voynich Q13M nymphs:
Drolleries from the region of Ghent also provide interesting parallels with the way the nymphs interact with the pipes in Q13. If we replace the tendrils in the pictures below with tubes, the poses are very similar to the Voynich marginalia ones interacting with their pipes, as is the idea of the characters emerging from funnel shaped plant parts and calyxes, or resting on blue shapes with dotted ornamentation.
As many have remarked, the bodies of the Voynich nymphs appear oddly misshapen, and Koen Gh. demonstrated in a post to the voynich.ninja forum (also see his blog), the proportions of the Voynich nymph’s bodies are unusual, and appear to be both childlike, somewhat androgynous yet possibly pregnant. This might also reflect the influence of a drollerie model, where nudes, including nude children, are frequently depicted, and because in drolleries, human beauty is really not a focus: on the contrary, misshapen bodies add to the amusement.
Again, just to be clear, I am not 100% convinced that the lateral margin illustrations of Q13M are meaningless: I just want to really explore what happens if we consider them as drolleries. Drolleries sometimes did convey meaning: I will be looking into that in the next post.
¹ Panofsky, E; Three Essays on Style, 1997, p.144
² Camille, M; Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, 1992.