Thanks to Cipher Mysteries commenter ‘p’ (in response to my request for the article), I’ve just read Beaune and Lequain’s (2007) “Marie de Berry et les livres” from (a vastly useful pirate academic web-site I wasn’t previously acquainted with). This really helped me fill a lot of gaps from the numerous fragmentary accounts I’d read of Marie de Berry’s books in the last few days.

As a side-note: one 15th century library inventory Beaune and Lequain pointed to was detailed in A. de Boislisle, “Inventaire des bijoux, vetements, manuscrits et objets precieux appartenant a la comtesse de Montpensier, 1474“, Annuaire-bulletin de la société de l’histoire de France, 1880, t. 17, p. 269-309. This is available in or (if you have an account) JSTOR. However, when I went through all the books listed (starting on p.297), I didn’t see anything by Oresme (or indeed any mention of an unreadable book full of plants and small naked women 😉 ), so this seems a dead end for us.

Finally: an interesting book also mentioned that might have more meat to add to the bones is M-P. Laffitte, “Les ducs de Bourbon et leurs livres d’apres les inventaires”, Le Duché de Bourbon des origines au Connétable, Saint-Pourcain, Bleu autour, 2001, p. 169-179, though it has to be said that this looks to be more focused on the sixteenth century. (So I’ll come back to that at a later date.)

Nicole Oresme

I’ve also been reading up about Nicole Oresme in Volume III (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries) of Lynn Thorndike’s “History of Magic & Experimental Science” and elsewhere: from this, I suspect that there’s a lot more going on in the inverted T-O map than you might at first think.

On the surface, it might seem as though Oresme’s book Du Ciel Et Du Monde is little more than a translation into French of Aristotle’s De Caelo. (Note that the English version of it is “Le livre du ciel et du monde” Edited by A. D. Menut and A. J. Denomy, C.S.B. Translated with an introduction by A. D. Menut. Madison, Milwaukee, and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968 – though note that this was originally written in 1943.)

However, the notion is that this is merely a translation couldn’t be further from the truth: even though this is perhaps how the book started out, Oresme’s commentary notes interspersed throughout his translation were very often critical of Aristotle’s ideas, theories and conclusions about the heavens. So in fact, Oresme was mixing together Ancient Greek thought with cutting edge cosmology.

For example, Oresme (according to the article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), “brilliantly argues against any proof of the Aristotelian theory of a stationary Earth and a rotating sphere of the fixed stars” (though in the end he wimps out “by affirming his belief in a stationary Earth”). “Similarly, Oresme proves the possibility of a plurality of worlds, but ultimately keeps to the Aristotelian tenet of a single cosmos.” (Both discussions taken from Clagett, M., 1974, “Oresme, Nicole,” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. X, Ch. C. Gillispie (ed.), New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.)

Many of Oresme’s ideas, comments, and insights were entirely original to him: and there was more than a hint of (dare I even say the word without being flamed by all and sundry?) tentative heresy to the direction many of them were clearly heading in. The medieval syncretism awkwardly linking Aristotle’s worldview with a Christian mindset was full of contradictions and unresolved problems, to which Oresme’s eyes were clearly wide open: his commentary lays many of these bare. Modern history of science commentators make no bones about linking Oresme’s thoughts to the genesis of Copernicus’s ideas: for, really, the similarities are there for all to see.

I personally would therefore be entirely unsurprised if Oresme’s troublesome late fourteenth century thoughts on the heavens were to have diffused their way into one or more early fifteenth century books of secrets. And – thinking across to the inverted T-O map where this thread began – if these thoughts subsequently prove to have been hidden in the middle of the Voynich Manuscript’s astronomical pages, should anyone really be hugely surprised?

What is intriguing is that this – if correct – would seem to extend the range of the concept of “secrets” beyond the traditional kinds of “trade secrets” (herbal recipes, eBay selling hacks, regexp tricks, etc) or occult secrets (necromancy, spells, incantations, amulets, etc) to something far closer to Natural Magic, meteorological or even philosophical secrets. But then again, the Voynich has all those astronomical pages, so what else might they be?

Oresme’s Footprint

It has recently become fashionable to talk about people’s “digital footprint”, that pale shadow of their actions (and their reputation, and indeed their mythology) cast over the virtual world of social media. Back in the fifteenth century, what was Oresme’s footprint? Specifically, how were his commentaries received and diffused?

I haven’t yet read Menut’s introduction to the 1968 edition of Du Ciel Et Du Monde, which would surely be the first place to start (though once again, it’s not exactly a cheap read.) Incidentally, here’s the Duc de Berry’s ex libris (fol. 171v of Du Ciel Et Du Monde) from MS Francais 565:

But from what is available on the web of Menut and Denomy’s work, we can see that there are (at least) six copies of Du Ciel Et Du Monde out there:
A. Bibl. Nat., Ms. Franc. 1082, ff. 1a-209c.
B. Bibl. Nat., Ms. Franc. 565, ff. 23a-171d.
C. Bern. Bibl. Bongarsiana, Ms. 310, ff. 28a-152d.
D. Bibl. Nat., Ms. Franc. 1083, ff. 1a-125b.
E. Bibl. Nat., Ms. Franc. 24278, ff. 1a-146a. [Description]
F. Bibl. de la Sorbonne, Ms. 571, ff. 1a-146a

Of course, we have so far been concerning ourselves with Ms. Franc. 565, but what of the illustrations in the other five? The earliest copy is Ms. Franc. 1082 (1370-1380), from which all the others presumably derived. Incidentally, the inverted T-O map near the front of Ms 1082 looks like this:

However, a quick check of e-codices for C would seem to reveal that Bern Burgerbibliothek Cod. 310 has not yet been made available in digital form; Ms. Franc. 1083 and 24278 are not obviously visible; while the Sorbonne copy would (from the images online) only seem to have elaborate section initial capital letters. So I’m really not sure where to take this next. 🙁

Incidentally, I did find a pretty good Nicole Oresme bibliography online, which pointed me to Gathercole, Patricia M., “Illuminations in the manuscripts of Nicole Oresme in Paris, Bibliothèque nationale“, Manuscripta, 16, 1972, p. 40-47. But (sadly) Gathercole only mentions the 565 and 1082 inverted T-O maps (p.43).

However, that same bibliography contains a mini-bibliography specifically on Du Ciel Et Du Monde, which has plenty for me to be looking at next.

All the same, I wonder if what we should be looking for is not copies or translations of Oresme’s work, but Fifteenth Century summaries of it by other writers, however brief (and in whatever language). Perhaps this is the kind of document that will ultimately yield us our our “block paradigm” known plaintext to work with, who can tell?

9 thoughts on “On Nicole Oresme, Aristotle, and footprints…

  1. Interestingly, Nicole Oresme is the name of the heroine of an online sci-fi comic, Quantum Vibe. I have no idea how the author came up with the name.

  2. Charlotte Auer on October 23, 2017 at 12:45 am said:

    An interesting general source:

  3. This will probably be a stupid remark, but isn’t the image you posted just a globe divided in half? Separation of earth and water instead of an inverted TO map? And if the other MSS derive from this, might they be the result of a misinterpretation of this drawing?

  4. “if [Oresme’s] thoughts subsequently prove to have been hidden in the middle of the Voynich Manuscript’s astronomical pages, should anyone really be hugely surprised?”

    – I would, for one. 😀

  5. Diane: ‘would’ vs ‘should’, *sigh* 🙁

  6. I don’t think I ought to be, and should can be ambivalent. I know I would be surprised were it proven so. 🙂

    Caesar don’t own grammar…

  7. Nick, you missed a trick by not listing ‘regexp tricks’ under ‘occult secrets’ as well. 🙂

  8. @nickpelling the BNF website has 1083 online, link here: (1083)

    Having gone through it very quickly:
    -1083 has loads of very nice bi-colour minor decorated initials, but lacks major decoration (although the spaces in the manuscript indicate that more extensive and more ‘special’ decoration was planned at some point). There are a couple of minor diagrams, e.g. f. 81rb, f. 127vb seq., and one interesting one on f. 216r, but you will probably want to satisfy yourself that nothing that could be an aesthetic model for the Voynich _mundus_ exists in the MS.

  9. Out*of*the*blue on November 1, 2017 at 11:32 pm said:

    Pardon me, if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the connection between Oresme and the VMs a result of the comparison between the Oresme illustration of the cosmos with VMs f68v made by E. Veinska in 2014, where you were the first to offer her congratulations for the interesting discovery?

    As for the T-O maps and maps being inverted, isn’t there a more significant difference in that the regular T-O map is geographic: Asia, Africa and Europe , while the one in Oresme is elemental: half water and a quarter each of earth and air.

    Compare these two illustrations: Oresme & VMs. The centers are a good match. The surrounding stars are a fair comparison. The outer band of the Oresme illustration is a detailed representation of a blue and white cloud band (Wolkenband) based on a scallop-shell motif. The VMs illustration has only a single line of ink that follows the pattern of a nebuly line as defined by heraldry. And while the VMs line clearly does not have as strong a visual impact, it still does follow the same basic form (the individual crests and troughs are bulbous) and there is an etymological connection (Latin ‘nebula’ means ‘cloud’.) Some other type of line could have been used instead.

    How could the VMs representation have a greater similarity to the Oresme illustration? If there was an elaborated cloud band in the VMs representation, the similarity would be much greater. And an example of a cloud band based on a scallop-shell motif was discovered in the VMs Central Rosette by D. Hoffmann, and it has blue paint.

    Cloud bands based on scallop-shell motifs are well demonstrated in some of the works of Christine de Pizan, but, on the whole, many other artists have found many other patterns and other colours to create cloud bands.

    If the elements from the VMs could be combined into a single image, it would certainly be far closer to the Oresme illustration than any other image presented thus far – and a lot of happy ninjas have given it a try.

    The question is whether an association of the respective parts is required to be physical, as part of a single representation, or is it possible for an ideological association to exist as an intentional construction by the VMs author? Could something that might be considered obvious by certain persons be disguised in the VMs by the separation of parts.

    One such instance is not sufficient to indicate a pattern, but there are other examples of deception, disguise and trickery in the VMs Zodiac.

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