The rise of the “Greek” in Voynich studies

As late as August 2013, in a comment written to Elmar Vogt’s blog, Ellie Velinska made clear that she knew of no-one save the present writer who ascribed the origin of the Voynich ‘nymphs’ to the Hellenistic period.

Thus, she wrote:
Hi Diane – yes, it [her proposition] is just imagination, but the 16th century European bathing disaster teaches us one thing: when considering scholar’s opinion – always make sure it passes the smell test! Sometimes it is wiser to trust your own nose rather than scholar’s training 🙂
My nose says – Western Europe, your academic training says – Hellenistic something… it is a tough call…

Even re-reading this, I find the metaphor, the absence of  evidence adduced,  and that curious modifier odd.  The intention is plain enough.

The more important point, though, is that until even later than this – until twelve months ago or less  -no effort had been made to use correctly any of the evidence or argument which I’d been providing for other researchers since 2010.    Koen Gheuens is the exception: he not only read a fair bit of the work, but happily acknowledged his source before setting about exploring the same topic in his own way.

Now, suddenly,   a little  “Hellenistic gold rush”  is in progress – apropos of which -JKP- has brought to notice a very nice  example of early medieval Christian hand, in an interlinear text: Greek and Latin.[1]

Of course the Carolingian ‘helios’ diagram to which Rene Zandbergen has often drawn attention is now recalled as gained by the Carolingian west from elsewhere.   In passing, I’d note that “Hellenistic” may be seen used as if it meant something vaguely  “Greek-ish” but strictly it applies to the pre-Christian period, where the 1stC BC sees the end of the Hellenistic period in a political sense, while a distinctively Hellenistic culture  survived in some regions to at least the 3rdC AD.

This sudden emphasis on “Greek” in  Voynich forums  may owe much to  Koen but also something to comments made occasionally by non-Voynicheros.  Seeing the sudden use of the word iatrosophia by Voynicheros in 2015, I  left  a question at Stephen Bax’ site under his post  “My 2012 paper” :

February 6, 2015 – 12:00 pm
I’ve read on Ellie Velinska’s blog that some un-named expert at the Folger library says the work is Greek. They describe it as a dispensatory (the Greek term for the genre is used: iatrosophia). Have you seen anything in the text to suggest that it’s just badly written Greek?

Other comments to that post by Bax are on the theme of “badly written Greek”. Ellie had only named Rene Zandbergen as source: the expert was left anonymous.

The date of Bax’ paper –  2012 – is again rather late, and while only one or two scholars still have access to the blog where I presented first the evidence and comparative matter from which my conclusions had been drawn, it may be of interest now to return to the source: Findings.   For later developments just search voynichimagery – or to get the general level of analysis and explanation see my recent posts here about folio 5v.


These brief extracts are just tid-bits from the longer posts in Findings.

May 3rd., 2010

It appears to me – so far – that the critical period for the compilation of the material in Beinecke ms 408 is that between the later Macedonian period and early centuries of the common era.

The wide geographic range which is implied by the specific motifs present in the ms persuades me that the material was not intended for a particular locality, or even a particular language-group, but rather to serve a profession and caste whose purposes required broader knowledge, and transits over regions formerly the preserve of the Phoenicians, and their associates ..

~ from  D.N. O’Donovan,  “Faces III: fol.67v(i): The whorl – points of Orientation”, Findings (blogger)


May 7, 2010

[concerning scripts attested in the Hellenistic period]

.. Recently, tablets have been found at Tell Fisna written in a form of late cuneiform, though they appear to date from the Hellenistic period. Their use of cuneiform appears to have been meant as a form of code, and the finders were unable to explain neither its use, nor the atypical astronomy apparently recorded on these tablets …

citing Jeremy Black, ‘Hellenistic Cuneiform writing from Assyria: the tablet from Tell Fisna’ Al-Rafidan Vol.XVII (1997) pp.229-238 and plates following.

~ from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Bull and Lotus: comparing Barhut [Madhya] and the Beinecke manuscript’, Findings (blogger)


May 11th., 2010

The content of the Beinecke manuscript appears to be less a compilation from standard academic texts than a corpus of information, collected first in the late Hellenistic or Roman period, and then preserved without alteration* until the time of the crusaders, whose style informs (for example) the architectural details set upon the map, but not the style of its basic plan and ornament.

For similar iconographic style, and details, we must turn to the materials of the artisan, the merchant, and traditional designs. These also make clear the direct lines of connection which formerly existed across the Arabian shield, between east and west.

*by 2011 I was already qualifying this to “without substantial alteration”

That post also includes note that for illustrations from Crusader manuscripts one might consult Hugo Buchthal, Miniature Painting in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Oxford, (1957) pp. 68-87.

~ from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The Mediterranean and India – patterns in Ivory and Stone’, Findings (blogger)


May 12th., 2010

… I am reasonably certain, in any case, that no Christian image existed – certainly not before 1438 – in which an unclothed female figure holds a cross at arm’s length, so I would say with some confidence that the chief figure in this picture does not belong within the traditions of medieval imagery of the Latin sphere.

That means, of course, that I do not believe it represents any conscious distortions or subversions of that tradition, either. Indeed, as far as I can see, the work’s original stratum probably belongs to the classical period, and more likely to the Hellenistic than to the Roman. While it might contain religious matter, that matter – so far as it relates to the imagery – could be expected to refer to some religion appropriate to the period in which the pictures were first composed. This, however, is an hypothesis which is not yet proven, where the date of the manuscript is.

A bibliographic reference was added to that post on  August 29th., 2011, viz. M. C. Miller, “The Parasol: An Oriental Status-Symbol in Late Archaic and Classical Athens”,The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 112, (1992), pp. 91-105. (JSTOR).

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Excursus: “Christian imagery in the Voynich’, Findings (blogger).


also from May 12th., 2010

this a note on a type of simple cylindrical container known in the older Mediterranean and by the Romans called a  ‘capsa’. We find scant evidence of the type there after the 3rdC AD.

An example of the hooped ‘Iberian’ style, dated to the 4th-5thC bce, and discussed further below, moves our record of that type backward by about seven centuries from the previously recorded instances, which are Byzantine c.2ndC ce. A bracelet which, though found in Rome, appears to have originated in the Hellenistic world, shows this ‘Iberian’ type attached to the columns of a building.
That date then enables us to suggest an explanation for an item that is very frequent in the “traders sequence” at Barhut [Madhya] 2ndC bce…

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Updated: Red containers and esparto’, Findings (blogger)


May 14th., 2010

It appears possible, though presently no more than that, [to me] that the ‘botanical’ section at least may belong within an Arabian– Hellenistic tradition..

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Pause for breath: emerging patterns’, Findings (blogger).


May 25th., 2010

I posted this image which I still consider important for Voynich studies by reason of certain motifs which appear here. The detail is from a work of the Hellenistic period (4thC BC) and the Aegean.


from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Plants, Litanies and Mantras – east’, Findings (Blogger).


June 8th., 2010

At least one sun-face of this type suggests its date. That seen in 69v-iii, where the sun-face is set within a vegetative border (again with a palm-branch edging), displays closely waved cropped hair of a type seen in portraits of some Roman women from about the 2ndC bce. More roughly cropped hair for women continues to appear in Roman works until at least the third century when it is seen (for example) in a portrait of a Palmyrean ruler named Zenobia, captured and forced to live in Rome for the rest of her life, just as the Roman emperor Valerian had been confined by Shapur, king of her Sassanian allies.

That this [second example of the] sun is supposed female is evident, by the combined depiction of this hair-style with a type of flat hairband [fol.68r-i] termed a ‘ribbon’ to distinguish it from the ordinary fillet, and which is reserved for priestesses during the time of Hellenistic Egypt and earlier Rome. In Rome itself, a priest wore such band as a matter of custom during rituals, but the blue ribbon was worn only during a specific ceremony: one of pre-Roman origin and which was intended to avert drought.

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The Sun – Part I – (fols 68r-i and 68r-ii; 69v-iii)’, Findings, (blogger).Note that the current Beinecke foliation for these images is “folio 68r” and for the sun with the blue hairband “folio 67v“. The holding library’s foliation should be used.


There are twenty-two more posts to Findings in which I explored and demonstrated Hellenistic origins for the vast majority of images in the Voynich manuscript – all before 2011.

Of importance, too are these:

Theophrastus and Aristotle

To quote from another of those posts, this referring to Theophrastus:

July 13, 2010

Next … a class of root-cutters  centred around the seaboard in the north-east corner of the Mediterranean: Antioch, Cos, and the Carian coast. The only individual about whom we know much, though, is Theophrastus of Eresus (372 bce to 286 bce), who studied first with Plato, and then with Aristotle, and who then succeeded Aristotle as head of the Peripatetic school.

Theophrastus set down his knowledge of Mediterranean and of exotic plants, of medicinal stones and perfumes in written form. The usual order, and structure, for those written works is echoed by the organisation of the VMs’ [sections]…

Theophrastus mentions cinnamon, and two different types of pepper plant, so it is clear that items of eastern materia medica (which include “spices” used in incense and perfumes) were already known to some Greeks at least in the Mediterranean,and no later than the third century bce. Theophrastus’ committing all he knew to writing was considered a little unusual, and among some sectors of the medical fraternity, there seems to have been some resentment felt. Our own times are not so different.

We are told by later commentators that Theophratus included portraits of plants in his text, and that the images were coloured, but not much more than that…

Theophrastus’ knowledge of plants, and his approach to the subject of plants, shows some influence from the Indian works which by this time were at least five hundred years older. (The Ayurvedic corpus was settled by c.800bce. The dates for Siddha medicine are somewhat less sure).

That influence in Theophrastus’ work may be due to the fact that he lived at the same time that Alexander the Great (356bce –323bce), following known roads eastward, reached the Indus, and that region from which we hear that the great medical sage of Siddha medicine, Agastya, had spread medical knowledge in India.

from D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Theophrastus, Canopus and such’, Findings (blogger).


A post of December 29th. 2011 which was written for students of mine includes a reference to the Tyche’s turreted crowns (Tuche) in relation to f.75.

To analyse the whole section would take about twelve months or more, I think – partly .. the quires are believed to be bound out of order, and partly that the narrative of the journey: the chart or map-like sections are interspersed with others, whose nature, character and reference would need a separate study.

The imagery in the additional folios within this section appears to me to refer to meteorology, or more exactly to astrometeorology, since discussion of times, stars, annual weather and wind-cycles and so on are all integrated in many texts, even the Periplus, which spends time describing harbour entrances and the time of year when the journey may be accomplished..

One might at least hope that the basis for the text in this section were the Meteorologies of Aristotle, or of Theophrastus or at very least of a well known Indian classic, such as that by Varahamihira, known as the Brihat Samhita.

However, if the material in these other folios is drawn from navigational lore, then it may be near impossible to translate.  That its, it might be written with such brevity that even if we could attribute phonemes to the characters, it would make little more sense [without specialist input]

A detailed study of the tyche types in the same section might be worthwhile, but in my opinion would require a couple of years’ work, since it would involve comparing each crown-like head-dress in the manuscript to hundreds of coins, charts, mosaics and written works .. no shoo-in.  I will put up some few tyche-figures soon.

essential textbook:
Kauz, Ralph, Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea (2010) pp.141-2.


So here’s the really big question: what inhibits all but a very few Voynicheros from correctly crediting and adopting work already done on this manuscript, regardless of whether it does, or doesn’t, agree with the older notion of an ‘all Latin Christian author’?  Since I’ve been demonstrating the clear evidence of Hellenistic character and reference in this manuscript – continually- since I began publishing parts of my research online in 2010, and the readership is not small, nor the amount of solid evidence.   Perhaps  the answer is to be found in the comments offered me over the same length of time by such persons as Ellie, Rene, Helmut Winkler or in recent days, Nick Pelling.  I’ll take another look at them.


[1] JKP posting to thread begun by Davidsch, ‘The Grecofile experience’  – forum


  1. I have only a cursory knowledge of early VMS research, but the association between the Voynich manuscript and Greek language/culture seems to me to be an old one. It was mentioned by Newbold and others that the text might have Greek underpinnings and Greek was alluded to in the Scientific American article. Robert Williams explored the association between the VMS text and Greek in 2010 (Cryptologia) and M. & A. Israél used Greek as the underlying language in their proposed translation. Many of the early researchers noted the resemblance of a small proportion of glyphs to Greek letters.

    Rather than a “rise” in Greek, it may simply be a continuation or a circular ebb and flow. Newer researchers retrace paths, either due to ignorance of previous research, or in the hopes that a fresh perspective might reveal something that was missed the first time. Greco-Roman art and literature was widely copied and studied in the middle ages, so it’s quite possible that this influence will be found in the VMS. How significant it is, and whether this will lead to decoding of the text is yet to be seen.


    • -JKP – [Jan. 8th., I’ve now cut my original comment to those points you’ve replied to]

      So to specifics. First – Newbold wrote almost a century ago, and since the rise of the “central European theory” he has been constantly and universally derided. Until recently perhaps when his mention of Greek might be considered a neat way to avoid having to credit contemporary original studies. Secondly you do not mention the date of that one Scientific American article, nor its author, so I think there’s no point in pursuing that. As for the 2010 Cryptologia article you mention – you don’t say just what Williams was treating, nor whether his conclusions are specific and supported with data, or just a vague bit of kite-flying.

      Again, we have seen many proposed translations, and in speaking of M. & A. Israél you give no details of them, or their publication, or of what reception it received.

      When you say “many early researchers noted…” you do not say how many nor how “early”.

      And finally, it is simply not true that Latin Christian Europeans can be said to have “widely copied Greco-Roman art and literature”. You simply can’t make that sort of hand-waving comment in this context. What I have done is to perform detailed analysis of this particular manuscript’s imagery, using the normal range of scholarly sources: archaeological, textual, comparative imagery and so forth, in order to explain not only what the imagery is about, but how it was constructed, its original cultural basis, and to describe, date and place the subsequent layers (chronological strata) evinced by the imagery, according each its appropriate origin.

      From that, my conclusion was that the basis of this imagery is Hellenistic (that is, pre-Christian Hellenistic) and that while the last of the chronological strata are compatible with Latin Christian customs, overall the imagery is plainly not a product of that culture. More, I would argue that the greater part of it had remained unknown to the culture of Latin Europe until at least the end of the thirteenth century. An idea of th evidence and reasoning which led to that conclusion can be read here.

      But before you are mislead by this “ebb and flow” theory, I’d suggest that you look in the first and second mailing lists, in JVL, and in Nick Pelling’s blog for any evidence that current Voynicheros held anything related to a “Greek” theory until fairly recently. Had the entry (c.2010) describing my views not been deleted from in c.2014, the contrast would have been much easier for you to to see.

      Do provide details of those two or three articles you’ve mentioned.


      • D. O’Donovan wrote: ” Secondly you do not mention the date of that one Scientific American article, nor its author, so I think there’s no point in pursuing that.”

        I’m sorry, I assumed you would be familiar with it and whether it’s worth pursuing should be based on the content not on whether I was unable to provide a citation. It was available to read for several years online but now appears to be closed to nonsubscribers. I’m not certain, but I believe it preceded Rugg’s article in SA. It’s the one where they mentioned near the end that the VMS author undoubtedly thought in Greek (an idea that was treated in more depth by R. Williams). The other articles can be found with a simple Google search.


      • JKP – I would be very interested indeed to have a full bibliog reference because as my longer term readers will know, I made precisely that observation – and explained how I’d come to think so – in discussing the tiers around the month-roundels. So it would be quite important to me to acknowledge that I am not alone in that observation, even if the writer of the article published his/her views later than mine. I am told that Scientific American is not a peer-reviewed, academic journal -so one expects that standards of documentation might be less rigorous.


      • D. O’Donovan wrote: “I am told that Scientific American is not a peer-reviewed, academic journal -so one expects that standards of documentation might be less rigorous.”

        I have a number of friends who are working scientists who are well-known in their fields and Scientific American is one of the publications they have on their shelves. For their own specialties, they go to white papers and communication with colleagues, but for a general overview of what is happening in a variety of fields, SA (along with Science News & Science Daily), provide a quick overview.

        On the Scientific American site, they have the following statements about submissions:

        “Our preferred authors are scientists who have extensive first-hand knowledge of the field that they describe and, preferably, have made significant contributions to it, or science journalists with the experience and background to deeply explore the topics they propose covering.

        Generally speaking, Scientific American and Scientific American MIND present ideas that have already been published in the peer-reviewed technical literature. We do not publish new theories or results of original research.”

        So while their articles are not peer-reviewed, they do have a preference for articles that have been through a vetting process.


  2. JKP – the thing is that early 15thC illustrations of such texts often look like this:

    “British Library, Harley 4431, f. 108v (‘Detail of a miniature of Hercules slaying Cerberus, and Theseus and Pirithous battling demons’). Christine de Pizan, Collected works (‘The Book of the Queen’), c. 1410-1414. This image is from L’Épître Othéa.”

    Diane has a point in that she recognized the unusually authentic nature of the VM images and analyze them as such elaborately. That is such a paradigm shift that some people, I think, still have trouble imagining it.

    It is of course true that some imagery survived into the medieval period as well, the Aratea tradition being the one I’m most familiar with.


  3. Koen wrote: “It is of course true that some imagery survived into the medieval period as well, the Aratea tradition being the one I’m most familiar with.”

    Koen, when I find parallels to VMS imagery in older sources, often it is in the Greco-Roman mosaics. Since many of the bath houses and carvings on ancient buildings still survive (even if not used for baths or worship any more), I think it’s possible those who lived in the medieval period had visual access to these traditions. I’m not as certain they had access to all the Egyptian resources. The shifting sand, flood plains, and tradition of building new villages on top of old make it challenging to chart what was accessible at any particular time. Often buildings and artifacts were discovered, mentioned in chronicles, sometimes even with preliminary sketches of the site perimeter or entranceway, and then lost again before the archaeologists (and looters) could return to excavate. We may never know which of the older Egyptian traditions were known by direct contact and which were passed down by copyists but it’s clear that much of their culture influenced later empires.

    I suspect the older influences in the VMS may have come through manuscript and architectural traditions (e.g., mosaics). When I see a recognizable elephant head in a VMS leaf, my first impulse is to believe that the person had direct contact with elephants, perhaps through travel, but then I discover very detailed and naturalistic mosaics of elephants in Europe and realize the illustrator may not have seen a real elephant all. That’s not to say travel was uncommon. Many from as far away as England traveled to Persia, the Levant, and north Africa in the 15th century, and exotic animals and plants were far more plentiful around the Mediterranean then than they are now, but I try not to assume too much. I’d rather just follow the data and see where it leads.


    • JKP – did you know that an Indian elephant was sent as a present to Charlemagne by the caliph of Baghdad? It was then sent, if I recall, to St.Denys where eventually it died. Perhaps it will help if I say clearly that while I do think the present, 15thC, manuscript was very likely made by a Latin (i.e. western Christian) European, I have no doubt that we are NOT seeing a work which is simply the result of a fifteenth-century western Christia copying directly from antique monuments etc.. Not only is the basic, Hellenistic, matter affected by stylistic habits from demonstrably eastern and/or Jewish ways of thought, but any hand, eye and mind is trained to certain conventions, attitudes and habits in representation. So even if an Englishman went to Egypt and there copied directly from ancient monuments, the result would remain plainly ‘English’ drawing, and not ancient Egyptian. The paradigm shift which is needed is to drop the notion of an imagined “author” and the unthinking expectation that in some way or another a Latin Christian had entire control over the process of transmission and expression. About style and habits in drawing – something I’ve been demonstrating positively for years – Koen’s illustration very nicely illustrates in the negative.


      • Well, I don’t know if the VMS was done by a Latin or a Christian—there’s nothing overtly Christian about it. I do know that many Christian monks studied Hebrew and Greek and copied (or translated) Hebrew manuscripts, and that a number of Jews established or joined secular manuscript studios (and sometimes converted and joined monasteries). As scribes, they carried some of their Jewish illustrative traditions with them. Merchants and travelers sometimes joined monasteries while retaining secular perspectives that show up in marginal drawings. If the VMS originated among the Cumans or Basques, then it wouldn’t necessarily be Christian, it could be shamanic or Pagan.

        But, even now, after studying the manuscript for years, I have no firm feelings about who authored it.


      • JKP a “Latin European” is Christian by definition in the medieval period. The term distinguishes the western Christian culture which used Latin as its official language from the eastern European that used Greek, or the Islamic European which used Arabic.

        If you’re interested in studies of other languages in medieval Europe, you might like to know that there was an early study of Greek in Canterbury in England, and we think of Syriac too. Use of Greek was also maintained in the south of Italy (where my header picture comes from). About the Jews bringing their illustrative traditions into monasteries and ateliers… again, one has to be specific with assertions like that. We also know that many illuminated Jewish manuscripts had their pictures added by non-Jews in Christian ateliers and this is much more certainly attested than the opposite. it’s a complex historical and art-history issue and guesswork or ideas of what might seem plausible to us, today, really don’t apply.

        Merchants and travellers were welcomed and provided accommodation and so forth by many monasteries, but by definition they mostly kept moving and I haven’t so far found an account of any layman-traveller going into a scriptorium. I’m sure it could have happened, but ‘could have’ won’t do for me.
        The primary source – or more exactly the imagery – displays details, motifs, and particular habits of thought which are Hellenistic. That means first enunciation of the matter before the 3rdC AD at latest. The issue then is who maintained it, how was it brought to the west, and when did the written part of the text cease to be intelligible to the possessors? Well, by the time Baresch had it, the script AND pictures were unintelligible to a person of good education, a fair knowledge of Latin, and who made strenuous efforts to find *someone* able to interpret any of it. He found no-one who could. Not the German botanists, not Kircher so far as we know…

        Question is whether the fifteenth century copyists who made our MS understood any of it. Even with all the resources at my disposal it hasn’t been easy going. And as for reactions – well, how many people can you find citing even the easiest?

        I have a firm opinion about ‘authorship’ of the imagery: forget it. No one person could possibly have invented these things. 🙂


      • D. O’Donovan wrote: “Perhaps it will help if I say clearly that while I do think the present, 15thC, manuscript was very likely made by a Latin (i.e. western Christian) European, I have no doubt that we are NOT seeing a work which is simply the result of a fifteenth-century western Christia copying directly from antique monuments etc.”

        Until I have more information, I like to keep open to the possibility that the VMS is neither Latin nor Christian. It could be Cuman (shamanistic), Basque (Pagan), Jewish or Messianic Jew, or Nordic (many of the northern people were Christianized, but others retained the old religions, along with ancient names and designations for constellations that are not part of the Greco-Roman tradition. Whether Christian or otherwise, they had an interest in Greco-Roman literature and copied manuscripts and looted libraries in eastern Europe).

        Islamic seems less likely, as there is little to indicate Islamic culture in the VMS, but even this probably shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand—some Persians migrated north, and there were also black colonists in central Europe, some of whom were nobility.

        It’s undeniable that the VMS scribes knew Latin scribal conventions, so a knowledge of the Latin language is likely, but those who knew Latin in the 1400s came from a variety of religious backgrounds, not all of which were Christian.


      • Dear JKP

        You say “… if the imagery points to Greek influences, it’s natural for researchers to speculate that the text might also be Greek.” Of course, and since I have so far no reason to believe that I was not the first person to argue that the imagery has origins in the Hellenistic period and so on, I think what we are seeing is an effort by the old “central European” theory clique to co-opt my conclusions (and perhaps some of my evidence) in order to suggest that it is some old-hat idea. If it were such, you’d think that some of the comments made to me, and about my work, since 2009 would have mentioned that fact, and that someone before Koen, would have tried to use my work to further their own efforts.

        This is the thing – a band-wagonner cannot explain the process, or any details – not details of method, nor of the chain of thought, nor account for the primary or secondary works which informed the original study.. unless I’ve published them online.

        Your situation is not unlike that of a teacher trying to decide which of two students cheated in the maths exam.

        It isn’t so difficult. One will understand how he (in this case, she) reached the conclusion; the other won’t. So you set a related problem, and see which student addresses the issue, and which tries to distract you with issues having more to do with personalities than the objective problem.

        I know exactly how I came to my opinion about any given folio, and any given detail. I can point you to the original source texts, to secondary histories, to histories of art, and to particular comparative ranges, and examples. I know why I concluded (as I wrote, explaining briefly) “the hours speak Greek” around the tiers of the month-folios. I know precisely which period in history is appropriate to this or that style of drawing – and more importantly, of *thinking* about the things drawn. Thought and language inform imagery; that’s one important key.

        Since it appears that the band-wagoners (who acquired a new word, iatrosophia, thanks to Alain Touwaide) are now desperate to claim ‘Greek’ and have apparently decided to mend their earlier ways of speaking about Newbold, let me give you a question to present: my guess is that they’ll all resort to sneers, obfuscation, or run for the nearest classics major and hope to be soon provided with a plausible answer. What none is likely to do – because after all they did no study of the “Greek thing” before iatrosophia, did they – is provide any clear answer that isn’t another bit of kite-flying or which doesn’t rely on sources and information I’ve already published online. Betcha.

        Question: If you say that the father of the ‘Greek Voynich theory’ is the late professor Newbold, can you tell us

        What philosophy underpins Newbold’s assertions about the meaning of the folio which he sent to a certain religious order and which was subsequently re-printed in their Journal. (for details, look up ‘Newbold’ in my earlier posts).

        and also:
        Does that philosophy you nominate adequately explain every drawing in which the so-called “nymphs” appear? Comment particularly on the “5 elements” diagram, and support your conclusions with citations from primary sources, secondary historical studies and comparative imagery. Do not neglect to mention when an earlier Voynich researcher’s work, conclusions, sources and comparisons inform your answer.

        (Some hints are in my earlier posts: just search for ‘Newbold’. A short while ago I also passed some of the answers to Koen)


  4. JK.
    Postscript – on finishing this reply to your comment, I wonder if I shouldn’t have posted it instead as a separate page .. Sorry it’s so long.

    It’s easy to conflate form with content, and both with the manuscript-as-object but I think it is important that these things are distinguished, or we can all start talking at cross-purposes. So – to work backwards in time – the final object that we now have includes a later cover, some undated marginalia which are presumably later than the folios were first inscribed. Before that we have the matter’s being set down on vellum which permits us to date the top eleven quires with a high degree of certainty to 1404-1438, and the rest by analogy and inference fairly to something close to the same period.

    The relatively coarse quality of the vellum (see esp. f.112r) strongly suggests that this is not a professionally produced manuscript intended for any important library, and further makes it unlikely that the manuscript was made in Germany. In addition, Alain Touwaide is reported as commenting that the binding (that is, not the cover but the stitching which holds the quires together) was of an Italian style.

    All this strongly suggests that the manuscript itself isnt’, say, Cuman-made although we can’t rule that out absolutely, I suppose.

    As for the content – here again we have to distinguish imagery from text. The current manuscript’s scribe(s) may have drawn outlines for the pictorial text, and inscribed the written text, but it is a mistake to presume, unthinkingly and without investigation, that both the images and the text were first enunciated by the fifteenth-century copyists OR EVEN by people of some other one time and cultural environment. In other words – the fifteenth century copyists might – as was routinely done – take the matter in the written text from one set of sources and the imagery from another.
    There are arguments – from the page-layout – which strongly suggest that the fifteenth century copyists were copying both from the same one (or, I’d say, more than one) exemplar(s), but again this doesn’t mean the exemplar hadn’t taken imagery from different sources than the text. (Look at any medieval manuscript, especially fifteenth century Latin European manuscripts for demonstration).

    So then if one wants to argue Cuman, or Norse, or Italian, or German, or Jurchen origins for the content in the manuscript, one has to demonstrate that BOTH the imagery and the script find close parallels in extant works having those cultural origins. At the very least, one has to demonstrate that ONE OR OTHER can be proven to derive from the posited culture at some identifiable period. Of course the original might, theoretically, be a work gained from ( I don’t know.. say Khazar) originals and the written part of the text then translated and/or enciphered using a different script.

    In that case, it would be the objective truth (with capital ‘T’) that the work was (e.g.) Khazar, but the means to prove that truth may no longer exist. That is, that (so far as I know, anyway) we have no comparative examples of Khazar imagery to set against the Voynich imagery, and only one word of the Khazar script and language to use in any comparison with the Voynich script and language.

    Historical studies, including the study of imagery, are always a study of what we actually have: archaeological evidence, textual evidence, informed expert evaluation of sources and objects and so forth. And we have to work within those limits of solid, demonstrable evidence as a rule (some ‘Voynich theories’ seem to operate only beyond the limits of the real world). In relation to the text, this evidence is largely statistical. And of course all the evidence in the world can’t help if people don’t treat it fairly.

    That is, it’s not enough, if one has a hunch the text might be .. Cuman..Khazar..Norse.., to only produce comparative examples from the time and culture which you would ideally like the manuscript’s content to have come from. You have to produce a fair, full and balanced range of comparative evidence, and not so much pull a bit of legerdemain to *convince people* that a given theory is believable, but ensure that across the body of imagery, or script, or language-stats available to you, no other corpus known before the early fifteenth century offers so close a match. Failures on this score, by the way, are what most irritate me about the style in which the imagery is most often treated. One sees a priori bias determined by nothing but theories and personal impressions; lack of analytical investigation, a prevalent habit of imposing twenty-first century (or even medieval Latin) attitudes on the images and even (surprisingly prevalent) a determinedly anti-intellectual attitude, one which says in effect “the answer already lies in my head and whatever I happen to think”.

    Yes, establishing a correct attribution for the matter in a problematic manuscript presents a huge task if people have no prior training or expertise, but we do have existing bodies of history, artefacts and scholarship to call on. I’m not prepared to begin studying high level linguistic theory, or even the history of cryptology, so I limit my own contributions to discussion of a subject in which I’m qualified.

    In the end, imo, “Plausibility” is largely irrelevant; a demonstrable, balanced, well-documented argument for relative probability is the thing to aim for, as the first stage in hauling this study out of the ‘long stall’ it’s been in for almost twenty years. 🙂


  5. D. O’Donovan wrote: “Your situation is not unlike that of a teacher trying to decide which of two students cheated in the maths exam.”

    I think you might be giving more weight to my comment than was intended.

    I’m not trying to figure out who was first, I just know that when I started reading about some of the early VMS research in 2013, after studying the plants in a relative vacuum for about five years, that one of the recurring themes I noticed was references to the Greek language and, to some extent, Greek culture. I offered my comment about the circular nature of research (the “ebb and flow”) only as an observation, not as a call to arms.


    • Right. Point taken. Of course, if you go back to those comments, I daresay the name you’ll most often see mentioned is Dioscorides, but the usual problem here arises, and the fact is that we have an enormous amount of information about the history and development of “Dioscoridan” plant-pictures from their first appearance in Mediterranean history, through their style in manuscripts of Syrian, Islamic, Byzantine and Latin make.

      So we can say without a shadow of serious doubt that the great majority of Voynich botanical imagery is not of the “Dioscoridan” type. You wouldn’t know from the way amateur Voynicheros talk that this is so nor (because it has been more or less stuffed under the rug) that this fact was perfectly evident to scholars interested in the manuscript as much as sixty and more years ago.

      But that posed a real problem, I guess, for the “all Christian, central European” storyline, because most knew of no other tradition in botanical illustrations, and remarkably few seem to have troubled to study the subject, rather than flicking through Latin (or, later, the odd Byzantine) manuscripts.

      I know of no other person who did other than convey their subjective impressions of that imagery until I set about treating it as an image to be described in the same way that we do in the ‘world out there’. Obviously, in blogposts written for intelligent persons only interested in the written part of the text, one has to be fairly brief, but the work has been done. It has simply been ignored.

      As example – has anyone ever done more about the paired images which Ellie Velinska posted under the mistaken impression that this perception of similarity was original to Rene Zandbergen? (I’m still not sure who did first make that comparison: Zandbergen later suggested it was Edith Sherwood though it is not really her habit to study comparative medieval images.

      You will see that none seeks to explain the image. In fact it does come from a Greek, and a Hellenistic Greek who lived long before Dioscorides. Just to be mean, I won’t name him. But what you saw wasn’t a “greek” theory; it was the repetition of an unfounded and unjustifiable notion that the Voynich botanical imagery comes from the medieval Latin corpus of Dioscorides. In fact, a “Latin Christian” theory, and not a Greek one.

      JKP – you make me feel that I should be posting lists of research questions as readers’ homework. But what I’m saying is just the results of my doing the “homework” before writing anything here. 🙂


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