The Voynich Sagittarius: A coincidence?

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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, 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?

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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!



Drolleries, Margins, Labels and Voynich Q13M

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.

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f190v, BL Add MS 49622

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.

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f1 BNF NAL 3255, France, 1300-1325. The illustrations to the left and center show Adam and Eve, “where the original sin came from” and “the sacrament of baptism” which absolves it.

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.

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f184, BNF NAL3134, Book of Hours, Rouen, France, 15thC.

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.

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f86, BNF Lat 10435, Psalter, Northern France,1275-1300

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.


Voynich Quire 13M: Very Droll?


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.

Fluid flows as framing devices in the drolleries of Bodleian MS Douce 6, Book of Hours, 1320-1330, Ghent.

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.

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Morgan MS 854, f186v, Burgos, c.1470

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.


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.


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.

These bas-de-pages don’t illustrate a treatise on hydrodynamics, but a Book of Hours.  F91v-92r, Morgan MS754, Northern France, c1325
This nude woman with a spindle is just there for our amusement. So is the fragrant vase nearby.

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:

Walters MS 87, Ghent, 1315 (the lower right image is a bas-de-page, which again, bears no relation to the text)

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.

Marginalia, Walters 166, Book of Hours of Daniel Rym, Ghent, 1425: swap the tendrils for tubes, and these could be Q13M nymph poses

As many have remarked, the bodies of the Voynich nymphs appear oddly misshapen, and Koen Gh. demonstrated in a post to the 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.

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P; 329, Bibliotheque Municipale d’Aix-en-Provence, MS 0022, Book of Hours, use of Rouen, 1460-1470

¹ Panofsky, E; Three Essays on Style, 1997, p.144

² Camille, M; Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, 1992.


The Voynich Shallows

Good friend, first consider one of the things I have noted, for it explains the shallows“.

Piri Reis, introductory poem to the Kitab al-Bahriye.

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The great Turkish seafarer Piri Reis, in his book Kitab al-Bahriye, or Book of Navigation (1521), describes the waters and ports of the Mediterranean. Reading this book led me to a very simple observation, which could provide insight into one of the roundels of the nine-rosette foldout. .

Portolan charts have already been mentioned by others in comparison with the Voynich 9 rosette foldout page, but the quest to match the castles and structures to specific places has led to a neglect of the language of maps itself: topographic markings. I believe one of these markings can shed light on a small but significant aspect of the Voynich upper right rosette, where a castle is depicted.

Many have noted that the castle appears to be by the sea, and indeed there are wave-like forms beyond what appears to be a breakwater. However, at the center of the rosette, there are no waves: the area is marked by a field of asterisk-like stars. “The reason for this my friend is that there are never waves in these shallows… Because these seas are shallow, waves cannot extend: such places devour the waves“, Piri Reis explains.

The coast of Apulia, Italy, in the Kitab al-Bahriye

In the Kitab al-Bahriye, dots represent places where the water is shallow, either sandy or with underlying reefs . Crosses represent areas where the water is not only shallow, but where the underlying rocks and/or reefs make it impossible for big ships to pass safely (Piri Reis does not distinguish between shallow rocks and reefs: both had the same effect on ships, which was his main concern). Of course, the Kitab al Bahriye  was written almost a century after the Voynich manuscript. However, Piri Reis tells us that “Hidden reefs in the sea since ancient times have been shown by means of crosses“.

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Rocky shallows off the Tunisian coast on the Carta Pisana

Indeed we find the crosses in many navigation maps from centuries prior, including the 13thC Carta Pisana, BNF  Res. Ge. B1118, thought to be the oldest extant portolan chart, as well as in the 15thC Italian map labeled HM1548 at the Bancroft Library, among others.

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Egyptian coast east of the Nile, with shallow harbors and rocks, in HM1548

The dots and crosses can be arranged in a linear fashion or to form various geometric motifs, but this in itself bears no significance, and the same harbor or bay can be shown on various maps with dots arranged either in lines or in circles or in other shapes.

Therefore, it is highly likely that the spiral impression in the Voynich illustration (which, by the way, only proceeds from the layout of the line of text, and not from the actual layout of the field of asterisks) is not significant: in actual maps, the geometric motifs formed by the marks serve purely aesthetic purposes such as in the examples from the Kitab al-Bahriye below.

My simple point in this post then is that if the 9-rosette foldout shows a map, then cartographic standards would lead me to interpret the field of asterisks as marking a shallow water area, possibly one which contains reefs or rocks.

Interestingly, to this day, the USGS and FAO use the exact same markings as those in the Voynich for exactly the same topographical feature!

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If in fact the markings in the castle rosette are meant to convey the same thing as those on navigation maps, we can know one thing about the Voynich castle: Whether it is real or mythical, the waters there are shallow and possibly full of rocks, perhaps so much so that big ships cannot enter the bay.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the spiral line of text in the center contained words like “shallow”, “rocks” “reef”, or even “dangerous” …

Marginal Psalters: Addendum

It has just come to my attention that there is one more marginal Psalter in existence: BL Add. Ms. 40731. Like most of the others in this group, it was produced in Constantinople in the 11th century. Although it has been cropped and the illuminations have faded quite badly in places, it features a few details that I thought made it worthy of its own post.

Although it is less water-oriented than the others in this group, it does present the classical depiction of river personifications in several folios.

It also presents the same characteristic use of fluids as a framing device, but more often than in the other manuscripts from this group, the source of the water is portrayed as a natural spring, with the water originating in a rocky outcrop:

However, one of the illustrations really stood out, as it represents the source of the fluid in a way that is distinct from all the others, and which I believe Voynich researchers will find very interesting.

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A similar structure is also found as a fountain from which a deer is drinking:

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This Psalter’s illustrator thus alternated between several ways of depicting the source of fluids: either personified, natural, or mechanical. In the Voynich, might we be witnessing a superposition/combination of the three?

Also of interest is the image of Jesus calming the storm, in which the storm is also personified. The personification is indistinguishable from that of other fluid-bearers, but the representation of the fluid issuing forth (wind?) is markedly different, in its lines, color and orientation:

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The manuscript also features an interesting depiction of the night sky above what the BL describes as a depiction of sunset:

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Finally, I found this image quite intriguing, and the BL offers no explanation for the red stars in the clouds beneath the image of Christ carried up to the Heavens or for the red dots falling from the sky. What are those?

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I must admit that I lack the skills to read the Greek labels beside these illustrations. If anyone would like to offer translations, they would be most welcome!

Voynich Q13 Marginal Nymphs & Waters: Comparison with an Unusual Group of Psalters

So my big Q13 post rollout has begun, and its going to mostly be about the sub-quire I refer to as 13M. I’ve decided to make this a multi-part series so I can focus on each aspect more in depth. In this series I’m going to start looking at water in the marginal illuminations of manuscripts and how human figures interact with it. For this first post, I will discuss a group of psalters that struck me as very interesting in relation to the Voynich manuscript.

These are a group known as “marginal psalters”: they are richly illustrated but unlike most psalters, they relegate the illustrations to margins and bas-de-pages. They caught my eye because I was on a hunt for images of water flows in marginalia, and while these are rather rare, they were prominently, repeatedly and distinctively featured in the “marginal psalters”.

The group includes BL Add. Ms. 19352Walters Ms. W. 733 , Vatican MS. Barb. Gr.372, and two other manuscripts held in Moscow (State Historical Museum, Ms. Muz. D29) and St Petersburg (National Library of Russia, Ms. OLDP. F6). The Moscow one, also known as the Chludov Psalter, dating from the 9th C, is apparently the oldest, but only a few images of it are available via Wikimedia Commons. If anyone knows of a full digital scan I would be very interested in seeing that. The St Petersburg one the most recent (ca. 1280-1320), and can be viewed in full here, but it is of least interest to me as it is an almost exact but less ornate copy of the Walters one, and several images are missing due to vandalism.

The BL (ca. 1066), Walters (ca.1300) and Vatican (ca. 1050) marginal psalters feature some rather striking resemblances to things we see happening in Q13.

Some of the fluid-bearers of MS. W. 733, pouring water, water turning to blood, or just blood.

The fluid bearers in these manuscripts seem to be derived from a model in the Chludov psalter, where we find the personification of the rivers of Babylon (see here) and some blood flow which seems to come straight out of the page itself (see here). In a commentary on the latter image, Glenn Peers suggests that, as the psalter was produced at a time when Iconoclasm had only just been defeated, the blood coming straight from the page is a political and religious statement: it serves to enhance the image’s holiness: the page bleeds like only the most sacred, miraculous icons and statues were known to do. In aesthetic terms, the author also notes that “blood frames the scene”: while the political illustrations would be dropped from later marginal psalters, the framing function of fluids would be reprised, and expanded. In the marginal psalters, even land is often represented as a sinuous strand, upon which various scenes take place, often supported by underlying water. The preference for undulating, fluid looking flows as framing devices in the marginal illustrations is clear.

Most interesting to me was the fact that these psalters contain copious amounts of water flow and the depictions of rivers and seas, which feature many times in each. The Walters one is slightly less aquatic, limiting the depiction of liquids to the folios where it is relevant to the text, but the others seem to show fluids flowing at every possible opportunity, even when there is no mention of it in the text nearby. I guess the artists enhanced the depiction of fluid flows because of their aesthetic value, and they can be found curling and swirling around many of the marginal scenes.

There are two aspects which are of interest here: Firstly, the mostly nude, crowned figures, whose interaction with the water is very reminiscent of the way the Voynich nymphs pour and bend the water flow in Q13. Unlike in these psalters however, the Voynich nymphs only rarely appear to be the physical source of the water themselves, and rather seem to be interacting with the flow, either affecting it or being affected by it. However, many other figures in these manuscripts can be found reaching into the flow, sometimes seemingly just to touch it, sometimes to collect water, or to collect things in the water such as relics.

The second aspect that we can observe here is the actual depiction of water flow itself and its use as a decorative motif in marginal art.  As I will be showing in this series of posts, the depiction of water as a decorative element in margins appears in certain contexts far more than others. Here, what we can observe is that the water is represented as a continuous flow, a wavy cylinder almost like a lock of hair, which is given some shading and highlighting on the edges as it unfurls downwards through the margins towards the bas-de-page. The placement of these streams on the page is very similar to that of Q13, especially the subsection I refer to as 13M. However, looking at the actual depiction of the water flow itself, substantial differences appear; we see none of the squiggles and zigzags which animate the Voynich waters.

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Water flow as a decorative framing device in the margins of Add MS 19352

I don’t want to draw definitive conclusions but this group of marginal psalters seems to show that margins with gratuitous nude crowned figures who are connected to decorative water flow used as a framing device are something that existed in a certain current of medieval Christian manuscript illumination. Whether these could have served as inspiration for the Voynich artist remains to be determined.

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A tub, nude figures spewing water, and fish linked together by strings…

I also found the following representations from this group interesting with respect to Voynich iconography:

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These baskets in Barb. Gr. 372 look a lot like the mangers in the Voynich Taurus folios
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Barb.Gr. 372: A personification of the Jordan, in a very Voynich-y pose, looks on while a baptism scene takes place.
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This image of antipodeans in Add. MS. 19352 echoes the layout of some of the “astronomy” folios

… More to follow in the next post!

A Voynich Presentation at Oxford

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Image credit: @medievaldebbie (Twitter)

April 1st was a sunny day at Oxford’s Merton College. The annual medieval graduate conference organized by the university’s Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature was in full swing when a spaceship landed, piloted by Alexandra Marraccini: a presentation about the Voynich Manuscript.

Some had wondered if this Voynich talk was really scheduled, or if it was an April fool’s joke: Was someone really going to analyze this pariah manuscript in such a prestigious academic context? Lo and behold, it was really happening.

I will begin by saying that Marraccini is not to be underestimated: she has a background in both medieval manuscript studies and computer science, as well as having worked closely with the Beinecke, Bodleian, and Herzog August Libraries, and mastering a wide range of languages (from her CV: Reading proficiency: German, Italian, French, Middle High German, Baroque German, Latin, Greek (ancient), Middle English. Codicological/palaeographic experience: Latin (both manuscript and incunabulae), Greek (Byzantine), Middle High German, Baroque German, Middle English). Also, as I had supposed, she is not a Voynich newbie, but has been interested in the manuscript for many years: she first heard about it as an undergrad at Yale.

Alexandra Marraccini’s paper is a valuable resource for any Voynich researcher, whether amateur or academic. While we may not all agree with all of the points she makes (and I am sure it will ruffle some feathers) I think as hobbyists we should pay attention and not just shrug off this rare bit of scholarly insight just because it may not provide support for our preferred interpretation of the imagery.
The full text of her presentation, as well as the slides, are available here, although bear in mind that the text is a draft which will undergo some changes (notably the diagram at the end) before publication.
Certainly, some of the ideas presented in the paper will be familiar to many in the Voynich community, such as the parallels with the alchemical herbal tradition. What I found of particular interest is the connection she makes with some lesser-known manuscripts, and I particularly appreciated the analysis of representations of the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah and the rare depictions of menses. I’ll go into those later on the forum, but here I will offer a transcription of my recording of the Q&A which followed the presentation. None of these questions are mine: they are from other medievalists (and one Voynichero, I think you’ll guess which questions those are!).

Q: (sorry I failed to record this question properly, it was about the zodiac section).
A: There are lunar calendars with women but sometimes, they may have been defaced by a later commentator. She can either stand outside the calendar, or in this case, they put the roundel there. It’s not uncommon that calendars are round, as of course menstrual time is cyclical, as we were talking about before, it’s just interesting in this particular case because lunar calendars in the 15th century in other books aren’t often round, although they sometimes are if they have illumination in the center. So you really just have to look at hundreds of manuscripts and make a statistical analysis, but my best guess is that it is done specifically to highlight the centrality of the woman’s role and the body recreating the seasonal cycle of the heavens, which, the microcosm and the macrocosm map onto each other in the alchemical discourse, so it’s another example of that.
Q: What about the dragon that we find walking about the roots of the plant, is it just the dragon as a means to produce fire, so a means to the transformation in alchemy?
A: Actually, those are quite common to herbals, even non-alchemical herbals in both the Dioscoridian and pseudo-Apuleian tradition. Sometimes they refer to the property of the plant itself to cure venom, sometimes they refer to the fiery nature of the humoral properties of the plant. There are lots of fictive and real animals documented because the bestiary tradition is embedded in the herbal tradition as well. So those are, they are used in alchemy as well, but they exist in the herbal tradition.
Q: I was hoping you could tell us more about some of the scholarly theories about the language, and which theory you think holds the most water?
A: One of the problems with decoding the manuscript is that people who work on mathematical cryptography are not often paleographers. So what would happen is there would be, like, 26 letters, or a certain number of letters encoded in the digital alphabet, and does that really express all the diacritical marks etc in the manuscript? There was some evidence found that the manuscript reflects the structure of a natural language, but then we also have knowledge of period ciphers, like Vigenere ciphers. And basically, that’s not something we know [ed. note: if it’s a natural language or a cipher].
So, recently there’s a linguist named Stephen Bax who claimed to have deciphered the manuscript, the same way that about 40 other people have in the past, which is to say by using the known names of plants. The problem is there aren’t Linnean names for the plants, and the Pseudo-Apuleian names might be relatively consistent but their spelling certainly isn’t, and the order in which the folios of the Voynich manuscript were arranged has been changed around, so you can’t use the plants’ names, I think, as plain text to decipher the manuscript. Just from a cryptographic perspective, you don’t even know, even if it is written in Northern Italy: is it written in the vernacular, is it in Latin, maybe a French-Italian combination? So there have been both computer based and human based approaches to decrypting the manuscript…  I’m not a linguist but the linguistic approaches tend to ignore the history of the herbal tradition and the problems with using stars or plants as plain text words.
Q. Have you read Nick Pelling’s book, or any of his work?
A. Yeah, I know he keeps a blog as well, and it’s quite good. But at this point, we can see the zodiacs pretty clearly, we know what those are, we might even be able to recognize the species of plants, although there are some people who claim to see a New World sunflower, which is a pretty contentious thing, dating-wise. And I just think, without knowing anything about the mechanism of the cipher, or of the tradition from which the manuscript originated… I mean if we could definitively tie it to a certain type of herbal production, maybe we could start to speculate about the way the folios were rearranged, or which plants were missing, but I just don’t think that, for now, that approach would work.
Q. Nick identifies a strong Milanese link, through the Sforza and the Visconti, and I find that very compelling…
A. I’ve seen the Visconti Sforza tarot cards at the Bodleian, and I know they did in fact collect esoteric material. But the problem is, this [ed. note: the Voynich] doesn’t get mentioned in their archive as one of the things they held. Until it shows up in the Rudolphine court, there isn’t documentation… it’s possible, I’m not saying it isn’t, but without confirmation I’m not going to assert that it’s true. I mean the only thing that we know about this manuscript is the dating and when it turns up in a series of 16th century letters. So, perhaps it was associated with the Sforza’s, although it is produced using relatively cheap pigments… if it was a Sforza manuscript, they’re absolutely dripping with gold, and even their alchemical manuscripts are quite expensive.
Q. I’m not suggesting it’s a Sforza manuscript. There’s a character, 4o, that Nick points to which is also found inside the scripts in early 15th century ciphers which were produced for the Visconti or later the Sforza. I’m not suggesting it’s that, but it might have had an influence… anyway that’s his argument, not mine.
A. Well, there is that argument, there are other characters that people have found and linked to other cipher manuscripts. The problem is the Voynich characters are inconsistent within the manuscript, the problem is the repetition of the characters is such that if they were anything like a Vigenere cipher or a period cipher, it would mean far too many consonants. So, I don’t have an opinion on this theory because I don’t think we know enough. But I think, what I want to explore about the manuscript is not trying to decipher the text as a first step, but rather trying to find the origin of the images, what we can already see.
Q. But do you think, the large foldout sheet, Nick identifies a castle and also other geographical locations…
A. See, this is where Nick is a computer scientist. I really love his blog and he has absolutely wonderful knowledge of cryptographic mathematics, which I did in a past life, but that architecture is similar to so much fictive architecture and manuscript traditions all over Europe… You can find a castle that looks like that castle in an 11th century English herbal. But… you cannot pin that architecture down to being an Italian…  It’s tempting, but I just would be extremely hesitant to attribute the style of those buildings to any one city in any part of Europe at any time. Especially given that I could look at his chronicles [ed. note: the previous speaker’s] and manuscripts by Chaucer, and find castles that look like that. So we have to be very very careful, which is why I chose to focus very specifically on this one image of Sodom. So in a way, what has damned the previous scholarship was that we do tend to take these speculative leaps, like Oh, this looks like an Italian city, or it looks like it has Arabic influence or it looks like this, and then all of a sudden you’re seven steps removed. It’s fascinating but it’s also dangerous.

I ended up having some time to talk to her during lunch, but didn’t record that conversation (obviously).
She spontaneously mentioned Arderne’s works as a potentially relevant source, as well as alchemical and esoteric works such as Books of Secrets. The stars in the margins are more common than we think, but often have been lost in other manuscripts due to trimming. The big foldout is, according to her, a sort of a map, but not a literal one, including fictive cities mixed in with other concepts. While we hobbyists may often complain about not enough tests being done on the Voynich, she explains that in fact, what little testing has been done is more than most medieval manuscripts will ever receive.
Some may be disappointed by her reluctance to make more definitive assertions about the Voynich, but I can understand that she would rather err on the side of caution and also, I’m sure there is a lot she will be telling us in the future: she plans to publish more Voynich research, hopefully as a post-doctoral project, ideally in collaboration with other medieval art specialists, which I think would be wonderful.
As she says at the end of her paper, it is not intended as a closing argument, but as a beginning.
I am really glad that there is finally an academic of her caliber, with the adequate qualifications to really bring something useful to the field, and who is committed to giving the Voynich a proper study. It gives me a lot of hope.