Short note: Koen Gheuens’ latest post

At present this manuscript’s imagery is being approached in two distinctly different ways. The first method is the more often seen – a hunt through medieval manuscripts for something which the researcher perceives as ‘looking like’ a detail in the manuscript.

The other is less common – but is essentially a hunt for the time and place which will offer an explanation for the imagery’s form and intended significance – potentially of greater help to those working on the text’s written part.

The first method, presuming so much in its initial hypotheses, allows a researcher to  set themselves very narrow limits and makes their work-load much lighter.

The second, seeking to answer the question of just where and when the imagery was composed (rather than when it was incorporated into the present manuscript), requires much more of the researcher,  and in the early stages can seem a bit  ‘scatter-gun’ as they begin to survey  a wider geographic and historical span, hunting for that point in time and place where not only similar objects are depicted, but a similar style in presentation and a definable significance will  occur together.

Stylistics are  generally ignored or rationalised by the first method, very often waved away by imagining them all due to quirks in some imagined ‘author’ .

But no matter which method is adopted, those willing to work at improving their perceptions, and to study the historical matter and specific techniques of analysis tend to show improvement in  fairly short space of time (say, 1-2 years).

Every now and then one does meet someone with a natural gift for this sort of work and – more importantly – an  ability to avoid over-identifying with any initial hypothesis.

Ellie Velinska works from an assumption that the Latin European Christian manuscript tradition defines the limits of investigation and takes her comparative imagery chiefly from German or  French manuscripts, but the quality of her interpretations has noticeably improved over time, and some while ago  Ellie herself said that some of her earlier writings now just embarrass her.  That’s nothing to be ashamed of, since she came to this problematic manuscript without any prior  training or experience in such work.

Sam G. seems to have a natural gift for uncoloured observation, but his greater interest appears (at present) to be in the written, rather than the pictorial text – a pity from my point of view, though one looks forward to his contributions overall.

Koen Gheuens is another whose work is worth watching.  Like Sam, he inspires confidence by his meticulous distinctions between his own observations and matter taken up from earlier researchers.  Fastidiousness in such things is one clear mark of the trained scholar, and was once the norm in Voynich studies, though until recently the higher standards of the old mailing list had been gradually eroded, and even actively opposed by some.

The standards to be observed are those which one sees, for example in Philip Neal’s pages, or in Nick Pelling’s posts.  Regardless of the writer’s preferred hypothesis or any personal ideas of such trivia as perceived nationality, gender or imagined social rank, such scholars  leave the reader in no doubt about what is original in their work, what is adopted from others’, what is mere speculation and what is based on solid evidence.

In making those distinctions, they recognise your right to see for yourself whether an idea they espouse is justified by the evidence adduced, and what other views should be considered.  An appropriate level of dispassion and a proper sense of proportion about each person’s role in the study also suggests an equal sense of proportion and dispassion in the work presented.  It inspires confidence – regardless of whether one finds oneself in agreement or not.

Koen’s earlier posts, I admit, I find a little problematic.  Even his latest  – which I recommend your seeing – has a title a little more eye-catching than my conservative training finds comfortable.

But his latest post shows just how rapidly a newcomer may refine his critical (and self-critical) ability and thereby his skill in objective observation.

Some of the comparisons offered by his recent post are impressive – not just as a  ‘match’  but  their selection from the range which he might used itself implies a type of restraint and discrimination which is only gained by concerted study of historical, textual and other technical matters,  essential to the formal practice of iconographic analysis.

I do agree with him that a great deal of the imagery in Beinecke MS 408 shows evidence of  first enunciation between the 3rdC BC and 3rdC AD, and in some sections remarkably little alteration from that time .  Longer-term ‘Voynicheros’ will know this, since I’ve been saying it for seven years.

But that agreement is not why I’m recommending Koen’s work, and  we hold different views on many points: theoretical, historical, and technical.  I’m recommending it as an example of how the second, analytical, method produces results.

A link to Koen’s post:

‘On Persian Crowns and the Nudity Bonus’, (28th. October, 2016)




  1. Diane, thanks for the wonderful review! You missed the second e in my last name in the title – a common thing even among Dutch speakers. It’s a ridiculous sequence of letters 😉
    I agree that the title is a bit childish but well… I can’t always keep my academic face on 🙂

    The point I am trying to drive home is that what we see are naked women wearing these items. So I like it when a comparative example reveals a cultural setting where this was acceptable or even normal.


  2. I think that where you and I differ, here, is that you posit the unclothed figures’ having had their head-wear from the time they were first drawn, and while I can agree this is so – in fact I’ve said so – in relation to the ‘tyche’ types in the bathy- section, I do have strong reservations about supposing the same true of the calendar’s three crowns.
    For example, if the figures in the calendar tiers already had the form they now have – as personifications of .. say, stars, then to add the crown of Byzantium to the star associated with Byzantium would result in this effect; same if the supposed ‘Egyptian’ crown were added to the star for Egypt or the Persian for Persia’s star. It would then be a late addition, and our comparisons could be just for the crowns, and not necessarily crowns-on-unclothed-figures. For the Hellenistic head-dresses on the ‘bathy-‘ types, though, I find your comparisons convincing, and quite compatible with the period indicated by other details in those folios. I’m not trying to change your mind – in the end your view of the calendar’s “three” may be proven correct, but at present I have reservations. 🙂


  3. Ah, so you think the crowns might be well informed late additions? Like when someone was still using the material as intended and added their own symbols to the nymphs? They really kind of are like mannequins then, if the user can change their clothes 🙂

    I thought perhaps some copyist saw a crown with an “Egyptian” element on top – as they often have – and “corrected” it to a Byzantine one. But that would be impossible to know for sure, so I’m open to all options.

    The red crown still forms a very strong match for the Lady of Byblos though.


    • The red crown… yes it does look like that on the Lady of Byblos statue from Damascus. And as a ‘Syrian’ or supposed ‘Egyptian’ crown it might be a type which explains why a crown of more-or-less that type is found as conventional ‘eastern crown’ set on a King David and/or a Claudius Ptolemy in medieval manuscripts – medieval Latins also imagined Claudius Ptolemy an eastern king (~of Egypt).

      Other western imagery uses different generic forms to convey the same figures ancient or ‘eastern’ character. One might see an Ottoman-hybrid for the ‘eastern’ crown on a king David, or some vaguely ‘Saracenic’ or ‘Magian’ headwear on Claudius Ptolemy. Other cases just show a European-style crown for everyone; I’ve even seen one of that sort (sans cross) on an image for the Emperor Valerian. 🙂
      But I do like the ‘Lady of Byblos’ statue. Very interesting – actually quite surprising, for all sorts of reasons.


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