Stars in the Margins (Update)

This isn’t the big blogpost I’ve been meaning to put up for ages: instead it’s something I would have posted to the forum normally, but since the forum’s had a few hiccups lately I’ll just make a quick post to share it here.

I found the marginalia in this MS quite similar to the marginal stars in the Voynich manuscript’s Quire 20. I don’t know if the star-with-a-tail in the margin of manuscripts is a common occurrence in medieval medical/pharma books, but I’ve never come across such an example before outside of the Voynich “recipe” section:

Glasgow UL Ms Hunter 135, f 163v, featuring “star on a string” marginalia.

The MS is a collection of medical recipes, and this particular section is a copy of Arderne’s Practica Chirurgiae. It is slightly too late for the Voynich, although very little is known (England, 16thC, with many later additions), as the various hands who composed and annotated the text are anonymous. A detailed description of Ms. Hunter 135 is available on the Glasgow library’s website.

MS Hunter 135, f158v
MS Hunter 135, f162r

Are the stars drawn by the original scribes or added by a later owner? Of course I can’t help but wonder if these stars refer to something in the text here or if they are a kind of decorative highlight for a special section of text, especially the first one with its tail.

Apparently this version of Arderne’s work is a much less ornate copy of another Glasgow MS: Hunter 251, which I unfortunately haven’t been able to find fully digitized yet, so I cannot check if there are marginal stars in the other one too.

Are marginal stars with tails present elsewhere? Personally these are the first I’ve found. Let me know in the comments!

Update: I found another, earlier MS from this collection (the Malaga Corpus) Hunter Ms. 185, which is also worth mentioning here: although it is devoid of stars, it does feature a list of recipes, each with a marginal squiggle which brings to mind the Voynich star tails. The initial f’s also form an almost gallows-like shape. Two examples:

Hunter Ms 185, England, 15th C, f64v, recipes. See marginal squiggle-tails and initial gallows-like f’s
Hunter Ms 185, England 15th C: more marginal tail-like squiggles near recipes

The Voynich Taurus

The Taurus roundels of folios 71v & 72r1

In Marco Ponzi’s extensive study of the Voynich Zodiac roundels, he describes Taurus in the following terms:

“The bull seems to be eating from a cylindrical manger, or drinking from a cylindrical well or bucket. It has been impossible to find any parallel for this detail. I think this point deserves further investigation.”

For a while now, I’ve been searching for something that might explain where the image of Taurus near a cylindrical manger might come from. I found nothing in astrological imagery. Even outside of zodiacs, most of the medieval images of bulls that I found represented them in nature, or interacting with other animals and people, or grazing in fields, or eating out of rectangular troughs. The cylindrical manger seemed elusive.

In this seasonally appropriate post, I will be exploring the possibility that the Voynich Taurus could be derived from the imagery of Nativity scenes. In Nativities, the round manger is a lot more common than in any other genre of medieval art. It is often represented as a structure made of wattle or some other type of basketry, which offers a compelling explanation for the criss-crossed pattern that is present on the manger in the Voynich image.

Bulls in Nativity scenes are most commonly portrayed near the manger where Jesus is laying, gazing upon him. Their position in the scene conveys either that they are adoring him (based on the 7th C Gospel of pseudo-Matthew) or that their breath keeps the baby warm (according to oral tradition).

There were variants of course, and medieval artists sometimes presented the bull as rather unconcerned with Jesus’ birth, or focusing on the food.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
Detail, f44v, Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1410-1416

In most nativity imagery however, the bull is not portrayed eating, but rather looking on, with his head hovering just above a manger, usually the one Jesus is laying in, but not always.

Detail, Grabow Altarpiece, 1383
Morgan Ms.766, f. 29v, England, c.1400
Metropolitan Rogers 1998.66, Ethiopian Gospel, Late 14th-early 15th C

The bull with a round manger motif in Nativity imagery is found in many places, as these examples show. Geographically, this iconography alone cannot really help us to pinpoint a local tradition which the Voynich image would fit. Chronologically, however, the period is very restricted: all of the images I found were from the mid 14th to the mid 15th century.   In this sense, the Voynich Taurus imagery appears to be firmly rooted in its time.

If the Voynich Taurus is based on Nativity imagery, this means that the period of production of the source material was very close to the time of production of the Voynich manuscript: the artist who created the Voynich zodiac roundels was inspired by recent or contemporary material, rather than by an older source.

How would Nativity imagery find its way into a Voynich zodiac roundel? In many medieval works, especially Books of Hours, Psalters, calendars and almanacs, both astrological imagery and biblical scenes can be found.  In my opinion, the Taurus roundels could result from the presence of a Nativity in a book of Hours (or other such book) from which the Voynich artist drew his inspiration.

We don’t know what the Voynich text says, but some researchers have suggested that the human figures which surround the central roundels in the Zodiac section could have some relationship with the theme of fertility, pregnancy, or the cycle of life (for example, this one ). If this possibility is entertained,  the use of a Taurus borrowed from a Nativity scene would be rather fitting.

Poses in the Voynich Manuscript

In this post I’m going to be taking a closer look at the way in which people in the Voynich manuscript are depicted, paying attention to their poses. Although there are hundreds of nymphs and other people in the various sections, seemingly performing lots of different activities, it appears to me that the range of poses is quite limited. It dawned on me that perhaps I could try to survey these poses and classify them.

What I am going to try to do here, then, is to create a catalogue of the poses which the artist has used in his illustrations. Not all of the Voynich people fall into these categories, (the poses of some of the busier nymphs in the balneo section are unique), but the overwhelming majority of them do. In some cases there are so many nymphs for one pose that I have only selected a few in the examples I give here. This post will be subject to change as I continue to investigate the poses and also taking into account reader contributions. Maybe something will emerge from this at some point.

Pose 1: “The Classic”

One hand on hip/waist or behind, the other arm outwards and upwards, slightly bent.

Classic pose

This is the typical pose for nymphs in the Voynich manuscript zodiac, but it also appears in the balneo section. The pose can often appear to convey a greeting or salutation, or more generally, speech. It does not appear that the pose relates to holding things: the nymphs in this pose in the zodiac section are not actually holding the stars, but rather depicted as connected to them by a line. Exceptions to this could be the people in  85r2 and 86v4, who are actually holding objects: to me these should fall into the next category.

Pose 2: “The Brandish”

This is a variation of the first pose, where one arm is stretched out forward, and not up. It is only found in the balneo section. This pose is generally used when a nymph is holding an object, and conveys a certain impression of power.


Pose 3: The “Hands-off”

In this pose, both hands are behind the back of the nymph, sometimes with the arms outstretched backwards. The nymphs in this pose do not hold objects, except for one who may be cradling the object with her neck/shoulder (contrary to what one might think at first, she is not holding it with her mouth: the object does not connect to it). These nymphs appear to be passive, powerless and rather overwhelmed by the things that are going on around them. In the cases where the arms are outstretched backwards and up, it is tempting to read the pose as an expression of surprise or even fear.


Pose 4: “The Spectator”

Both arms are down, sometimes in a rather uncomfortable-looking position. In the zodiac folios, this pose is only featured in two places: the outer ring of Pisces, and in the dark Aries folio (all of the inner ring, some of the outer ring).It is also present in the balneo section. These nymphs typically don’t hold objects, or engage in any discernable activity.

Spectator pose

Pose 5: “The Spread”

Both arms are stretched outwards from the sides of the body, more or less upwards. In one case, it may be explained by the tubing. In the others, not.


This pose could be related to the iconographic tradition of the “orant” pose, or to that of the crucifixion. This study of the imagery in Nicolas Oresme’s translation of Aristotle, the Livre d’Ethiques, shows a pattern of using this pose to depict the incarnation of various virtues. Hildegard von Bingen uses this pose to represent the “Universal Man” in her Liber Divinum Operum . In all of the above examples, the pose is in some way indicative of a virtuous or pious person.

Pose 6: “The Bend”

This pose is exclusive to a few folios in the the balneo section. The nymph is bent over, apparently picking something up with one arm, while the other either lies flat against her side or is slightly bent.


Pose 7: “The Two-Armed Reach”

This pose, in which both arms are stretched out, slightly bent, towards the front, appears mainly in the Zodiac section, and mostly among male “nymphs”, although Virgo and the female half of Gemini are exceptions. It is worth noting that all of the human figures in the Voynich Zodiac’s central roundels are depicted in this pose.



Application: Groups of Nymphs

When we examine groups of nymphs in the balneo section using this classification, the action almost becomes readable. For example, in f75v:

Capture d’écran (70)

The classification allows us to see that in this illustration, what might at first appear as a homogenous group of linked nymphs is actually two groups, of nymphs doing the “Brandish” around the central “Spectator” nymph. As we have seen, the Brandish is associated with holding something, while the Spectator is a passive posture. The two groups appear to be engaging in some kind of tug-of-war over the central nymph.

The structure above them which connects to each nymphs’ head is also divided in two. The central nymph appears to belong to the left side group, as her head is connected to the left structure, but her body is turned in the opposite direction, facing in the same direction as the right side group. Which side will she end up on?



Voynich Manuscript: Ring-Bearing Nymphs

Among the many mysterious figures in Quire 13, one appears to be of particular importance in the story being illuminated by the illustrator, as he/she has repeated it several times: the nymph holding a ring. We find this motif on three occasions, in three different variations:

Folio 79v
Folio 80v
Folio 82r

As discussed in my previous post, when Quire 13 is returned to its original order,(, these three folios follow each other. Whatever the motif of the nymph holding the ring may refer to, it appears to be a feature in the “story” that is being told across these three folios, and nowhere else in the manuscript.

Here I would like to introduce another lady, this one from the world of heraldry, who struck me as particularly reminiscent of the third ring-bearing nymph. Meet Mrs. Von Lehwaldt:

Lehwaldt/Lawalt family arms

This is the coat of arms of the Lehwaldt family, from Germany. Though the line is extinct, this is still the coat of arms of the town of Lawalde. The earliest record of this image is 16th century, but the title was granted in the 12th so who knows when they came up with the bejeweled arm(s).

To be fair, Miss Lehwaldt isn’t the only heraldic figure to sport an oversized ring like the three nymphs in the VMS. There are also rings being held by hands in various other shields, but I did notice a pattern: All of the shields which feature a hand holding oversized jeweled rings like this are from the same area: a part of Germany known as the Mecklenbourg-Strelitz district, in that intermediate area between Pomerania and Brandebourg.

There we also find the arms of the Oertzen family (but the ring is held by two arms), the arms of the Lords of Stargard (as early as the 13th century), those of the town of Furstenberg/Havel and those of the town of Neustrelitz and Strelitz, all featuring the ring being held by a hand. The only exception I’ve found to this localization is a shield of the Royal Lordship of Molina (Spain), which also features an arm holding a ring, but it’s a plain one with no gem. I suppose that there may have been other families who used this motif in the Mecklenburg region, or elsewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t found them yet. This iconographic motif so far seems really very specific to the regions mentioned in this paragraph.

It’s not impossible that the three depictions of women holding rings in the balneo section of the VMS are inspired by this rare, very specific heraldic motif. Of course, this makes me wonder if it is meant to represent a person from the Mecklenburg area, or someone whose ancestry has roots there. It could mean something like “Our baths are so great that we have customers who come all the way from Lawalde!” or “Our baths were improved by the additions made by a specialist from Lawalde”, or even “Something unusual happened while we had a visitor from Lawalde”. The fact that the character is represented on three occasions does seem to make “Miss Lehwaldt” a rather important figure in whatever is being discussed here.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the balneo section isn’t about balneo at all, and that the nymphs are symbolic of something else: it could be a political or military plan to invade the Lehwaldt’s lands, or a mention of them as allies, competitors or enemies. There are so many possibilities… and sadly, no, I haven’t got a clue what heraldic symbolism might explain the original appearance of the ring-bearer on these shields. If I had to guess I would say this could be a reference to purity or honor: in the Nibelunglied for example, this parallel between Brunhilde’s ring and her virginity is made explicit. A woman holding a ring is a woman who has retained her virtue. But of course that’s just a guess.

Voynich Manuscript: Re-Ordering the folios in Quire 13

Re-Ordering the Folios in Quire 13



Following Nick Pelling’s comment below, I have revised the proposed order of folios slightly within subquire C (flipped the outer folios).

This post was inspired by a discussion on a Cipher Mysteries page presenting Nick Pelling’s “Block Paradigm” (read about it here: The article and its lengthy comments section discuss the text on folio 81r and its layout. One of the many questions raised is: does the large blank margin on the right side of the page reflect the nature of the text, i.e a poem or song, or is it due to some other factor?

Nick Pelling referenced a suggestion made years ago by René Zandbergen that the blank space may have been left by the scribe to leave room for a marginalia type of drawing which never ended up being added. With all due respect to Mr. Zandbergen, who has considerable expertise on the manuscript and whose website ( is a real treasure trove of Voynich-related information, I believe that this particular hypothesis of his can be disproven, as will be shown in the following paragraphs.

Mr. Pelling has demonstrated that Quire 13 was originally in a different order than it is now, as evidenced by the connected tubs of 78v and 81r. His work with Glen Claston on the MS brought them to the suspicion that Quire 13 might best be viewed as consisting of two distinct quires. I recently found a page discussing this at Cipher Mysteries (, but it does not provide any link to Claston’s work and I was unable to find any online exposé of the reasons that brought him to consider Quire 13 as consisting of two subquires, (which they call 13a & 13b).

In this post I will be presenting my own reasons for reviewing the folio order, and the original ordering of quire 13 as I see it, which is based on the type of layout and drawings we find within its pages. It may be that Glen Claston had made the same observations as the ones I will be presenting, but as I said, I was unable to find his writings on this subject: I just want to emphasize that I am not trying to plagiarize anyone’s work,  and that I cannot claim beyond doubt to be the first person to identify the properties that lead me to my conclusions. Here they are anyway:

Original Quire 13 Folio Order:

76, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 84, 78, 81, 75

Here’s why:

The section of the manuscript known as Quire 13 displays two types of page layout structures which can be grouped as M and C types of folios:

  • C type folios feature large Central tubs with clearly visible “walls” and  structured sides: these are man-made basins, sometimes connected with tubing. C type folios have no marginal drawings (no figures in the margins).
  • M type folios feature pools which have no such walls but are marked by wavy edges, possibly indicating natural pools. M type folios however, feature plenty of man-made elements in their numerous Marginal drawings.
  • It is also worth noting that while the nymphs in M are active, hold objects and carry out all sorts of interactions, the nymphs in section C are almost completely passive, just standing or laying in the water.

Each folio’s recto and verso sides belong to the same category.

The grouping is as follows, and apparently mirrors Claston’s 13a/b division:

M: 76, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83

C: 84, 78, 81, 75

On some folios there are central pools and marginal drawings, but in these cases the pools do not display structured tub walls like the others in the folios classified as C type folios, and they are therefore M types.

When the bifolios are reordered to reproduce this order, we end up with two subquires, quire 13M and 13C. I believe M precedes C in the original ordering, because f76r, with it’s emphasized initial character and vertical key-like sequence of characters, make for a better header for the overall section. However, one or several bi-folios may be missing from 13C (Pelling says this was also postulated by Claston), so this cannot be known for sure at this point.

Within each subquire the order of the bifolios is obvious, as sub-quire 13C necessarily has bifolio 78-81 as its center, however it may be missing folios, or could perhaps just tell a shorter “story” than the one being told in 13M.

Returning to the hypothesis that 81r’s layout may have been intended as leaving room for marginal images, this can now be ruled out, as we can see 81r is a C type page, consistent with its other side 81v, and therefore was not intended to feature drawings in the margins. The layout is likely the result of the scribe’s avoidance of a stain in the margin, as suggested by “Job” in the comments section of the Cipher Mysteries article mentioned above, or a reflection of the nature of the text itself (poem, song, or other).

If anyone has a link to Claston’s work on quire 13, please let me know, I’d love to read it!