Excellent memory – poor handwriting- and Augustine

14th March (with sincere thanks to Karl Kinsella ~ a couple of corrections, in blue).

To people indifferent to religious disputes, it’s sometimes surprising that Medieval studies could still suffer after-effects from the western  schism, which rolled on between the fifteenth and seventeenth century or so.

But it’s true:  if your interest is in magic, astrology, gutter-press writing 17thC style,  superstition in any form, or vivid pictures of women being burned alive – Protestant English presses are definitely your best bet (through EEBO).

Another ripple affects the nature of discussion about mnemonics and the ars memoriae.

It tends (sometimes unconsciously) to split into two camps along  pre-schism and post-schism lines.

Yates’  book (1966) was an outgrowth of her interest in Giordano Bruno whom she imagined a figure steeped in occult Hermetic lore. Her views are no longer so widely accepted as they once were.

But  in that context  Yates became interested in ars memoria, and notwithstanding her interest in the earlier  Ramon Llull, Yates imagined the memory arts, memory-images and so forth,  essentially anti-clerical and bound up with things as astrology, Hermeticism and so forth.

Carruthers’ masterful  Book of Memory appeared in 1980, changing academic discussion of this subject – I’m tempted to say ‘forever’.

Carruthers demonstrated that language, memory, and methods of the ars memoriae were an inextricable set, whose evolution predated not only the introduction of print, but formed a continuum with the pre-Christian era, rather than being simply its later revival.

In that first text, Carruthers’ focus was on Hugh of St. Victor, a Dominican member of the Order of StVictor (Canons regular) whose Royal school was later attached to the University of Paris,  influencing the latter at a critical stage in its development.

What neither Yates nor Carruthers  treated was use of the heavens as an ‘immortal scroll’, a  permanent template to which mnemonic imagery and words might attach to the roster of days.

In the main, the omission has not much hindered the field of study, though its absence did lead to an inappropriate description of one twelfth- century copy of Gregory’s Moralia in Job. (The Cîteaux)

That ms Beinecke 408 contains deliberate, systematic and discrete mnemonic devices had not been recognised, nor formally discussed before I came to this manuscript in 2008-9.

Ideas of ‘encoded’ pictures had certainly been floated, but formal analysis of the imagery in any sense had not been considered and remains generally untreated. Among many the impression remains strong that the pictures are no more than one individual’s  ad.lib. decoration of the written text, rather than a parallel narrative to be read.

I have not found the mnemonic elements remotely similar to the system ascribed to Bruno or to that invented by  Llull.

It is always, and inevitably, difficult to convey the character of a painting or picture, and here more so than if I were treating a manuscript which could be fitted comfortably in the history of western Christian art.

As always,  one has to resort to metaphor in the hope of conveying to non-readers the ‘personality’ of drawing-style.

If I may put it so, then: these mnemonic elements are more personable, more humane and more direct than those.

They spring less from a geometrical and mathematical mind than one arithmetical. Less of the ‘memory theatre’ than the memorised thesaurus.

There is a simplicity, even a warm-heartedness about them which appeals.

They are not formed by literature or artifice, but by the nature of the thing memorised and, of course, the original maker’s first languages and culture.

They are above all, sensible, practical and finely constructed. So easily read, or potentially so even in our own time because unlike the deeply literary and biblical allegories of medieval Christendom here there is no tangled thicket of self-conscious learning: no obfuscation between the object memorialised and the willing reader. What makes them obscure is not the maker’s intention so much as that the makers mind and thought was of his other country and its customs.

If I were to offer another comparison ~ these mnemonic elements read like the sort  of drawings a person might make today while enjoying a very long conversation with an old friend. They are pleasant to read; easy, but not calculating.   Less clever than condensed. Comfortable, and ready to communicate – but in their own terms, environment and makers’   ‘language’. Like a crossword puzzle by a favourite maker.

But all that should have been a couple of paragraphs to introduce the main subject:  handwriting.

1. Llull:  Here’s a link to a fifteenth-century copy of one of Llull’s astrological writings. If you go to this page, your preferred translation can be changed to German from English.

Futher down that same page, btw, is a reducing ‘brickwork’ diagram.

By coincidence, another Voynich site today posted a different brickwork diagram.  Klaus Schmeh says he can’t decode it, so if you can, do let him know.

That treatise by Llull was copied using a  ‘secretary hand’. Not one suited to copying manuscripts. Not a ‘scribes hand’ at all. Not like the style of the Voynich text.

Here’s another fifteenth-century hand; it’s the  signature of a Spanish nobleman named Pero Tafur, who met de’ Conti in 1439-40 as the latter was returning to Italy.

de’ Conti had spent decades in the east, finally returning from Java via Mecca where he was temporarily obliged to convert to Islam – or die with his family where he stood. In penance, he went to the Pope for absolution and was commanded to deliver the narrative of his earlier life and journey to dear-old Poggio Bracciolini, a very mercenary chap whose memory some recent writers have tried to brighten up, somewhat.

Ssignature Pero Tafur 15thC Spanishpeaking of bright things.

Rene Zandbergen kindly gave me a link to a page on voynich.nu where he has posted a lovely astronomical diagram of the Parantellonta.

Introduction of those allegedly  ‘Egyptian stars’ to Renaissance courts has normally been attributed less to Firmicus Maternus (who mentions them) than to Peter of Abano, another Dominican just as Hugh of St.Victor had been.Tester himself was uncertain of their origin, and most discussions on the point tend to be inconclusive. India or Egypt are the chief options, but on this subject as so many others, the works of David King and David Pingree are the present standard in English studies.

Abano himself was another who was condemned for heresy, but is mentioned under  ‘Padua’ in an article that is remarkable good in its treatment of  medicine in ancient, classical and medieval times.

For bringing d’Abano’s role to wider notice,  Seznec’s Survival of the Pagan Gods (1954, 2004) was chiefly responsible.

Rene’s illustration, by the ways, includes a standing archer – which is nice.

Thanks Rene.

Postscript –  Augustine, Pelling and nihil obstat.

Pelling’s discussion of the Voynich  codicology is vital in any hardcopy discussion of this manuscript.

This among other things because ~ whatever ms Beinecke 408 may have looked like before being sent to Kircher ~ the manuscript we have is highly unlikely to contain anything contrary to Catholic faith and morals.

Positive and negative evidence suggests this.

The positive evidence is on f.116v.

The negative, that nothing of what is plainly not Christian imagery is not explicitly permitted by some dictum of Augustine’s.

There is no point in quoting him on sections that I have not yet discussed, so these relate to the few treated so far:

Botanical section. Despite the lack of Christian allusion, and certain presence of pre-Christian and non-Christian elements, I believe the botanical section is very nearly here in its original form.  This probably thanks to Augustine’s mockery of people who considered some plants good, and others evil:

Who would be so mad as to think that a living thing made by Gd, especially one planted in paradise, can found fault with? Even the thorns and thistles …are not rightly to be found fault with. Even such herbs have measure, form and order.

 On the Nature of the Good (xxxvi)

Similarly,  the ‘five element’ diagram.  It might  be of Manichaean, Nestorian, polytheist or other origins, but its retention would be permissible in canon law because Augustine says firmly:

.. neither is that material which the ancients called Hyle to be called an evil..

Augustine: On the Nature of the Good 18

Lunar/tidal diagrams, similarly.

They occur in other medieval Christian works and like forms of works-and-days zodiac, had by default a practical and useful rather than prognosticatory purpose.  And here Augustine says:

I do not know what I shall have for dinner tomorrow, but I do know in what sign of the zodiac the moon will be. There is nothing shameless  in that.

Augustine: Soliloquies

His dicta – and none carried more weight – would even allow  very plainly pre-Christian and non-Christian forms to remain, most notably the Syrian(?) bearded sun. Augustine’s view was perfectly clear on this:

Nor is light itself evil, [even] when that light we can see with our eyes is worshipped [by others] instead of the light of wisdom, which is seen by the mind. 

Augustine:  Of true religion 39

And that remark above coming from a relentless opponent of Manichaeism  the ‘religion of light’.

I’ll have to try to find our more about how the vetting-process was conducted in Europe between the early fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, but as I understand it the object was more-or-less tried, with individual images able to be not only condemned but defended by reference to canon law.  Any assistance with the question would be appreciated.

On the down-side:

I think  anyone who might be hoping the Voynich will prove a work about magic, witchcraft or other such matter is doomed to sad disappointment or a stubborn-but-happy persistence in delusion.

It is theoretically possible that the book once belonged to Ficino and even that part of it might come from Bacon or Arnald, but hope not for witchery, dear readers.

The dreadful scrawl on f.116 is, I believe, just what Nick Pelling thought it might be:  a  ‘Nihil obstat’.

And that’s why, I suppose, the manuscript might sit happily for centuries in a college for young chaps studying for a degree in Theology.


Postscript: March 11th

Others among Nick Pelling’s posts on this subject are:-

I do not share Nick’s opinion (given in the post linked below) about what conclusions may be drawn from the imagery’ suse of close-set parallel line. Nonetheless, Nick specified the following as relevant to his discussion of codicology so I add it.



  1. Enjoyable post.
    Just to note, Hugh of St. Victor was an Augustinian Canon of St. Victor, and was not attached to the University of Paris, which was established approximately 50 years after his death (in 1141). An unimportant detail in the scheme of your idea, but I think worth getting correct.
    Best wishes,


    • Thank you so much for troubling to comment. I’ll review the sources from which I had that information. I admit that the notes I’m quoting from were made nearly sixteen years ago. Very lax of me.


    • Back again.
      The error was one of omission, I’m afraid.
      The Royal School of St. Victor, to which Hugh had been appointed head, was ‘attached’ in the less formal sense to the University when the latter was officially instituted. But And that, as you say, occurred after Hugh’s lifetime.

      The reason I consider this relationship between the School and the University important has to do with a particular strand of imagery in England, and links between the School (and Abbey) of St. Victor with England on the one hand and the Premonstratensians on the other.

      see e.g. life of Achard of St.Victor.

      As Karl will certainly know, but other readers may not: Hugh was a a member of the Order of St. Victor, an order of canons regular which observed the rule of St. Augustine, as most such orders did. But it is not ‘Augustinian’ in the same sense that the Cictercian Order is ‘Cistercian’.

      My saying that Hugh was a Dominican was an error.



  2. I’m impressed you have been able to keep notes for that period, mine tend to get lost very quickly.
    You don’t even need to go to Achard of St. Victor for connections with England. After Hugh the most important Victorians were Richard of St. Victor, and Andrew of St. Victor (see Beryl Smalley’s “Study of the Bible”). Richard, while probably staying in Paris for most of his life (although Walter Cahn suggests he went to Jerusalem at one point), is in fact Scottish. In glosses of Richard’s “In Visionem Ezechielis” we get references to the “Scotti,” which at this point was certainly Scottish and not Irish. Also, copies of the text turn up in the South East of England very soon after its completion (which is another complicated matter in itself), but interestingly it turns up in a Cistercian house (if I remember correctly).
    Andrew was also better known as Andrew de Wigmore during the latter period of his life, and probably in the immediate years afterwards, as he became head of St. Victor’s daughter house there (which is in England).
    Anyway, as I mentioned it was an unimportant note to the greater scheme of your argument, but a simple one to fix, and I thought it would help solidify your piece.
    Best wishes,


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