Rene Zandbergen recently stumbled upon a circular drawing in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France’s MS Coislin 338, and wondered whether it might be “a possible precedent for a Voynich astronomical illustration, where the original MS is Greek“, just as for two other Greek manuscripts (Codex Taurinensis C VII 15 and MS Vat Gr. 1291) he turned up and wrote about in other years. What he finds interesting is that “the Voynich MS astronomical illustrations are rather arcane, and do not deal at all with the astronomy of the times of Copernicus and after, but with the times much before that.

To my eyes, though, comparing just one page of MS Coislin 338 with the thrice-great APOD picture isn’t the whole story. You see, a fair few years ago Voynich researcher John Grove proposed that the VMs’ Quire 9 had been misbound along an incorrect fold after the quire numbers had been added but before the folio numbers were added: and if you follow his argument through, you discover that without much doubt the VMs originally placed its 16-way “sun-face” page f68v1 immediately adjacent to its 12-way “moon-face” (APOD) page f67r1.


This elegant (but still fairly basic) codicological observation is why I find the APOD comments (for each of the three times the picture on the right has come up) lacking, because nearly all of them were made without grasping these two pages’ original context. OK, so far so “Curse of the Voynich” (pp.58-61, to be precise) – and I would add that it seems fairly unlikely to me that the two (very different) blue paints on these pages were added when they were in their original page order. But what is new for 2010 is that MS Coislin 338 also contains a 16-way circular diagram (fol. 121v) placed immediately adjacent to Rene’s 12-way circular diagram (fol. 122r). And the zigzag edging on the two right-hand 12-way drawings seems eerily familiar too…


So… you might reasonably ask what amazing secrets this section of MS Coislin 338 holds: but if you did, you’d perhaps be a little disappointed to find out that it simply contains a Greek commentary by Theon of Alexandria (Hypatia’s father, as historical proto-feminist conspiracy fans may already know) on Ptolemy’s Handy Tables. Intriguingly, this particular copy was made in the 15th century – but that may (for the moment) be just about as far as we can take this whole parallel.

The problem we face is that we simply don’t know whether such irritatingly good matches between documents are causal, correlative, or (given the large number of documents that have been trawled over the years for comparison) simply random. Really, it would take someone sitting down with a proper critical edition of Theon’s commentary around these pages to see what kind of data it describes, and then prolonged meditation on what we might think about the Voynich Manuscript’s possibly-linked pages as a result. But is anyone likely to do that? I’m not sure… but perhaps we’ll see!

20 thoughts on “MS Coislin 338 & the Voynich Manuscript…?

  1. They are standard.

    The Voynich diagrams refer to two of the systems used for dividing the circuit of the horizon: the sixteenfold and the twelvefold.
    A good, solid ref here is Taylor, E.G.R., The Haven Finding Art. The 1971 edition contains a very valuable essay by Joseph Needham, which is well worth a read.

    The exterior loops are in works of western Christendom from the tenth century onwards, and are also typical of medieval Islam, where the circuit around Mecca is divided by reference to the ’40’ divisions of place and of time. Anyone wanting more refs, or pictures, do email me at:

  2. PS I wouild urge anyone interested in the imagery of the Voynich to begin by reading the volume on Medieval Art (by Sekules) in the Oxford History of Art series, particularly the chapter in which she speaks of the way the divisions of heaven and earth, of learning and mapping etc. were correlated.

    I think it may be chapter 5, or 7, but don’t have my copy with me.

  3. rene zandbergen on February 17, 2010 at 8:27 am said:

    The most striking part is of course the shape and orientation of the 12-pointed
    star with the circular gap in the middle. Furthermore, Vat.Gr. 1291
    also deals with Ptolemy’s handy tables.

    For me these are now just interesting parallels, and we’d need to find
    more for the ‘plot to thicken’. The Handy tables MSs should be able
    to tell us what these figures in Coislin 338 are exactly about.
    The 8- or 16-part symmetry suggests winds.

    Comparisons of the various inscriptions in the two diagrams should be
    of interest, but I have to admit I’ve been lazy there…

  4. rene zandbergen on February 17, 2010 at 8:32 am said:

    Thanks Diane, I hadn’t seen your comments when I wrote mine.

  5. rene zandbergen on February 17, 2010 at 10:17 am said:

    By the way, I fully agree with Nick’s considerations about the
    different shades of blue used, and the possibility that colour was not
    applied when the page was laid out open as shown above.
    I have recently made a similar observation, which I am sending to Nick,
    and which he again may decide what to do with.

  6. Diane: the issue is not whether or not such diagrams were individually “standard” (which of course they were), but whether there exists a specific medieval literature family where 12-way and 16-way circular diagrams sit adjacent to each other, in the way that we see both in MS Coislin 338 and in the VMs.

    Rene: thanks for sending the file off-line – though exactly as self-explanatory as you note, it would definitely be a good basis for an interesting blog post here…

  7. Paul Ferguson on February 18, 2010 at 1:42 pm said:

    Hyperlink fol. 121v requires a WordPress log-in/password and hyperlink fol. 122r doesn’t work at all 🙂

  8. rene zandbergen on February 18, 2010 at 3:48 pm said:

    Ah, yes, the right-hand image of Coislin 338 deals with the 12 winds.

    On p.169 of the following book:
    there is also a familiar-looking image of the 12 wind directions.

  9. Paul: hyperlinks fixed, thanks (d’oh!)

    Rene: So… Pliny preferred an 8-way wind-rose in his Natural History:-
    N – Septentrio / Aparctias
    NE – Aquilio / Boreas
    E – Subsolanus / Apheliotes
    SE – Volturnus / Eurus
    S – Auster / Notus
    SW – Africus / Libs
    W – Favonius / Zephyrus
    NW – Corus / Argestes

    …whereas Isidore’s 12-way wind-rose ‘rota’ (usually oriented with East [Subsolanus] at the top) comprises…

    – Circius / Thrascias
    N – Septentrio / Aparctias
    – Aquilo / Boreas
    – Vulturnus / Carcias
    E – Subsolanus / Apheliotes
    – Eurus / [Eurus]
    – Euroauster / Euronotus
    S – Auster / Notus
    – [Austroafricus / Libonotus]
    – Africus / Lips
    W – Favonius / Zephyrus
    – Corus / Agrestes

    With this in mind, you can see that “subsolanus” [East] is aligned with “augustus” just to the left of the top of the rota on p.169, followed by “eurus” just to the right of the top of the rota.

  10. Nick – older maps tend to be oriented to the south, or the east.

    Rene – the Ptolemaic corpus is relevant, of course, and includes charts derived from his gographic text; they are particularly interesting because they revert to the minimal style of the Roman route maps rather than using the chart as a plan for the whole encyclopaedic corpus of learning – the usual method when books were still prohibitively expensive and all learning was memory-based.

  11. I think one could fairly describe the appearance of the Voynich map as minimalist.

  12. Sorry – just a quick note of one useful secondary source re comparative calendars in classical times. This is particularly relevant since it refers particularly to the situation of the trader sailing to the eastern sea.

    Frederico de Romanis, ‘Romankharattha and Taprobane: relations between Rome and Sri Lanka in the first century ad.’ in F. de Romanis and A. Tchernia (eds.), Crossings: Early Mediterranean Contacts with India, New Delhi: Manohar, 1977
    see esp. 163-185 passim and translation of Pliny’s remarks on the need to use the lunar months of Egypt (the ‘fan’ calendar style) as basis for calculating sailing times in the east sea.

    Note that de Romanis calls the Egyptian calendar a ‘revolving’ calendar, which is not the usual term. It is better called a sidereal, or lunar calendar.

    If anyone finds this book difficult to obtain, I’ll post the actual quotes later.

  13. Diane O'Donovan on March 7, 2012 at 11:39 pm said:

    I am troubled by the assumptions which underlie a lot of this research; chiefly by the assumption that we will find the origin for its content as well as for its materials in the corpus of western European works. It is noticeable that the closest parallels are to works which reproduce content from the pre-Christian era and/or which were gained from lands further to the east.

  14. Diane O'Donovan on March 7, 2012 at 11:45 pm said:

    Theon, like Ptolemy was a Graeco-Egyptian and like so many diagrams of this sort, those in the Vms are derived from the older, eastern world and not from western Europe, which simply re-discovered and copied that material. In the same way, the Vms imagery shows origins in the east but europeans were not the only people who maintained and employed classical works, as we know.

  15. Diane: I don’t see this as paradoxical at all, for the simple reason that the Renaissance was precisely the time that saw adulation of long-forgotten Classical motifs and modes of expressions to any significant degree for the first time in centuries. For me, the Voynich Manuscript is in no useful sense a medieval artefact: its construction was quintessentially Renaissance, even if many of the ideas used in it are much older. But that’s the nature of ideas! 🙂

  16. Diane O'Donovan on November 22, 2012 at 8:10 am said:

    Good lord – I’d not just forgotten this conversation; even reading it doesn’t ring a bell now.

    Due apologies to Rene, Nick… All I can plead is the fact that this was an aeon ago as far as things Voynich is concerned – for me.

    I was actually going to ask whether it was my disputing the zodiac-as-zodiac, or having the temerity to differ from Rene’s views, or simply that we love zodiacs per se… but since I said I didn’t believe those folios had been meant for a zodiac, it’s autumn in mid-summer for my blog at present.
    (If I’m not being too metaphorical here).

    Anyway – back to add the necessary notes.

  17. Pingback: La Comida y la Astrología Lunar Antigua « Espaço Astrológico

  18. damo on May 11, 2014 at 9:39 pm said:

    I think Ive just found the guy who wrote the Voynich manuscript

  19. Diane on May 13, 2014 at 3:49 pm said:

    I still hold that the sort of drawings which appear in late medieval European technical texts follow, rather than precede the model we see in diagrams of the Vms. Nick, I think, will never accept that ms Beinecke 408 is not the fruit of medieval western Christian culture, but to my eyes and in every detail which I investigated, such an opinion does not hold and can not ever, therefore, explain where and by whom the content was first enunciated or by whom carried to form its section in our fifteenth century copy. For a copy of older and non-European works it certainly is in my opinion.

    By this I don’t mean that it is a classical Greek or Latin work retained and kept in the west, but a work heavily influenced by non-Greek and non-Latin peoples.

    In my opinion.

  20. Pingback: f67r1 – discussion of winds from Marco Ponzi | Stephen Bax

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