Here’s a link to a nice little piece on the Voynich Manuscript that came out today in classy American online magazine Vox. Though clearly triggered by Nicholas Gibbs’ recent TLS non-theory, the article steers well clear of presenting it (or indeed anything else) as a Voynich solution or explanation – and praise be to the Cipher Gods On High for that small mercy.

Unusually, Vox’s mission – to engage with newsworthy subjects and explain them really clearly – is almost Reithian. In these online days (where journalism so often ends up thinner than the paper it’s printed on), this is an approach that’s so brutally old-fashioned it’s close to subversive. Whatever next – shock jocks touching on deeper truths that no-one dare name?

It may sound a little shallow, but I was actually very pleased to find my words used to close the article: that “The evil beauty of the Voynich manuscript […] is that it holds a mirror up to our souls”, i.e. all the while the Voynich Manuscript’s secrets remains uncracked, it seems we will always have to endure people peering into its haruspicious sheen and seeing exactly what they want to find. Oh well! 😐

In August 2016, I spent a day at the British Library trawling through many of its palaeography books (as I described here). What I was specifically in search of was examples of handwriting that matched the handwriting in the Voynich Manuscript, along with its marginalia.

As mentioned before, the document I found was Basel University Library A X 132: it’s a Sammelband (anthology or collection), with sections copied from a number of different medieval authors. The section I was most interested in (dated 1465) was fol. 83r through to fol. 101r.

With a little help from Stefan Mathys (thanks, Stefan!), I ordered some pages, along with some from the start and end of other sections, just in case the same scribal hand reappeared and included a little biographical information about that scribe. I’ve just begun writing this up as a paper (heaven knows that so little of any authority has been written about the Voynich, so I want to do this properly): but as I was going through, I noticed something interesting that I thought I’d share separately.

One of the extra sections I asked for began on f202r: and I must admit to being surprised to see an oddly familiar piece of marginalia there. Recalling the tiny marginalia at the top of the Voynich Manuscript’s page f17r…

…now look at the tiny marginalia at the top of A X 132’s fol. 202r, a “vocabularij hebreicus et grecus” (according to this):

The listing remarks that f202r is covered in “Stegmüller, Rep.bibl.6,93 Nr.8665”, i.e. Friedrich Stegmüller, Repertorium biblicum medii aevi, 11 vols. (I don’t believe that volume 6 is online, but please let me know if you manage to find a copy.)

Have you found any better matches than this?

A tip of my monkey’s uncle’s Susquehanna hat to Derek Abbott for today’s cipher history link: a new Voynich theory by Nicholas Gibbs in the Times Literary Supplement. Gibbs explains the circumstances that brought him to the Voynich Manuscript:

I am also a muralist and war artist with an understanding of the workings of picture narration, an advantage I was able to capitalize on for my research. A chance remark just over three years ago brought me a com­mission from a television production company to analyse the illustrations of the Voynich manuscript and examine the commentators’ theories.

however… all the descriptive part of his solution seems to have been culled from those parts of commentators’ reading lists that caught his eye, but then vaguely linked together into a sort of fairly unconvincing-sounding narrative. The only linguistically technical part of his “solution” in the TLS is given in tiny letters in the following image, which you can make out if you click on it and squint:

Note that the image is marked “p16_Gibbs1.jpg”: which seems to imply we have a book to (sort of) look forward to. Errrm… hooray.

I could list a whole load of things that are wrong with this, but I’d be typing all night on a TL;DR post and nobody would care. *sigh*

I posted here a few weeks ago about whether the Cisiojanus mnemonic might be in the Voynich zodiac labels, and also about a possible July Cisiojanus crib to look for. Since then I’ve been thinking quite a lot further about this whole topic, and so I thought it was time to post a summary of Voynich labelese, a topic that hasn’t (to my knowledge) yet been covered satisfactorily on the web or in print.

Voynich labelese

Voynich researchers often talk quite loosely about “labelese”, by which they normally mean the variant of the Voynichese ‘language’ that appears in labels, particularly the labels written beside the nymphs in the zodiac section. These seems to operate according to different rules from the rest of the Voynichese text: which is one of the reasons I tell people running tests on Voynichese why they should run them on one section of text at a time (say, Q20 or Q13, or Herbal A pages).

The Voynichese zodiac labels have numerous features that are extremely awkward to account for:
* a disproportionately large number of zodiac labels start with EVA ‘ot’ or ‘ok’. [One recurring suggestion here is that if these represent stars, then one or both of these EVA letter pairs might encipher “Al”, a common star-name prefix which basically means “the” in Arabic.]
* words starting EVA ‘yk-‘ are also more common in zodiac labels than elsewhere
* most (but not all) zodiac labels are surprisingly short.
* many – despite their short length – terminate with EVA ‘-y’.
* a good number of zodiac labels occur multiple times. [This perhaps argues against their obviously being unique names.]
* almost no zodiac labels start with EVA ‘qo-‘
* in many places, the zodiac labels exhibit a particularly strong ‘paired’ structure (e.g. on the Pisces f70v2 page, otolal = ot-ol-al, otaral, otalar, otalam, dolaram, okaram, etc), far more strongly than elsewhere

That is, even though the basic ‘writing system’ seems to be the same in the zodiac labels as elsewhere, there are a number of very good reasons to suspect that something quite different is going on here – though whether that is a different Voynich ‘language’ or a type of content that is radically different from everything else is hard to tell.

Either way, the point remains that we should treat understanding the zodiac labels as a separate challenge to that of understanding other parts of the Voynch manuscript: regardless of whether the differences are semantic, syntactic, or cryptographic, different rules seem to apply here.

Voynich zodiac month names

If you look at 15th century German Volkskalender manuscripts, you’ll notice that their calendars (listing local feasts and saint’s days) typically start on January 1st: and that in those calendars with a zodiac roundel, January is always associated with an Aquarius roundel. Modern astrologically / calendrically astute readers might well wonder why this would be so, because the Sun enters the first degree of Aquarius around 21st January each year: so in fact the Sun is instead travelling through Capricon for most of January.

However, if you rewind your clock back to the fifteenth century, you would be using the Julian calendar, where the difference between the real length of the year and the calendrical length of the year had for centuries been causing the dates of the two systems to diverge. And so if we look at this image of the March calendar page from Österreich Nationalbibliotech Cod. 3085 Han. (a Volkskalender B manuscript from 1475 that I was looking at yesterday), we can see the Sun entering Aries on 11th March (rightmost column):

Note also that some Volkskalender authors seem to have got this detail wrong. 🙁

All of which is interesting for the Voynich Manuscript, because the Voynich zodiac month names associate the following month with the zodiac sign, e.g. Pisces is associated with March, not February (as per the Volkskalender), etc. This suggests to me (though doubtless this has been pointed out before, as with everything to do with the Voynich) that the Voynich zodiac month name annotations may well have been added after 1582, when the Grigorian calendar reforms took place.

Voynich labelese revisited

There’s a further point about Voynich labelese which gets mentioned rarely (if at all): in the two places where the 30-element roundels are split into two 15-element halves (dark Aries and light Aries, and light Taurus and dark Taurus), the labels get longer.

This would seem to support the long-proposed observation that Voynich text seems to expand or contract to fit the available space. It also seems to support the late Mark Perakh’s conclusion (from the difference in word length between A and B pages) that some kind of word abbreviation is going on.

And at the same time, even this pattern isn’t completely clear: the dark Aries 15-element roundel has both long labels (“otalchy taramdy”, “oteoeey otal okealar”, “oteo alols araly”) and really short labels (“otaly”), while whereas the light Aries has medium-sized labels, some are short despite there being a much larger space they could have extended into (“oteeol”, “otolchd”, “cheary”). Note also that the two Taurus 15-element roundels both follow the light Aries roundel in this general respect.

It therefore would seem that the most ‘linguistically’ telling individual page in the whole Voynich zodiac section would seem to be the dark Aries page. This is because even though it seems to use essentially the same Voynich labelese ‘language’ as the rest of the zodiac section, the labels are that much longer (or, perhaps, less subject to abbreviation than the other zodiac pages’ labels).

It is therefore an interesting (and very much open) question as to whether the ‘language’ of the text presented by the longer dark Aries labels matches the ‘language’ of the circular text sequences on the same page. If so, we might be able to start to answer the question of whether the Voynich labels are written in the same style of Voynichese as the circular text sequences on the same pages, though (with the exception of most of the dark Aries page) more abbreviated.

Speculation about ok- and ot-

When I wrote “The Curse of the Voynich”, I speculated that ok- / ot- / yk- / yt- might each verbosely encipher a specific letter or idea. For example, in the context of a calendar, we might now consider whether one of more of them might encipher the word “Saint” or “Saints”, a possibility that I hadn’t considered back in 2006.

Yet the more I now look at the Voynich zodiac pages, the more I wonder whether ok- and ot- have any extrinsic meaning at all. In information terms, the more frequently they occur, the more predictable they are, and so the less information they carry: and they certainly do occur very frequently indeed here.

And beyond a certain point, they contain so little information that they could contribute almost nothing to the semantic content, XXnot XXunlike XXadding XXtwo XXcrosses XXto XXthe XXstart XXof XXeach XXword.

So, putting yk- and yt- to one side for the moment, I’m now coming round to the idea that ok- and -ot- might well be operating solely in some “meta domain” (e.g. perhaps selecting between one of two mapping alphabets or dictionaries), and that we would do well to consider all the ok-initial and ot-initial words separately, i.e. that they might present different sets of properties. And moreover, that the remainder of the word is where the semantic content really lies, not in the ok- / ot- prefix prepended to it.

Something to think about, anyway.

Voynich abbreviation revisited

All of which raises another open question to do with abbreviation in the Voynich Manuscript. In most of the places where researchers such as Torsten Timm have invested a lot of time looking at sequences that ‘step’ from one Voynichese word to another (i.e. where ol changes to al), those researchers have often looked for sequences of words that fuzzily match one another.

Yet if there is abbreviation in play in the Voynich Manuscript, the two syntactic (or, arguably, orthographic) mechanisms that speak loudest for this are EVA -y and EVA -dy. If these both signify abbreviation by truncation in some way, then there is surely a strong case for looking for matches not by stepping glyph values, but by abbreviatory matches.

That is, might we do well to instead look for root-matching word sequences (e.g. where “otalchy taramdy” matches “otalcham tary”)? Given that Voynich labelese seems to mix not only labelese but abbreviation too, I suspect that trying to understand labelese without first understanding how Voynichese abbreviation works might well prove to be a waste of time. Just a thought.

Dark Aries, light Aries, and painting

As a final aside, if you find yourself looking at the dark Aries and light Aries images side by side, you may well notice that the two are painted quite differently:

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces and dark Aries appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

Note that there is an ugly paint contact transfer between the two Aries halves (brown blobs travelling from right to left), but this looks to have been an accidental splodge (probably after stitching) rather than a sign that the two sides were painted while stitched together.

Just a quick visual idea for you to ponder on with regard to Voynich Manuscript page f57v: it’s something I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.

Back in 2010, I posted a page here discussing astrolabes, nocturnals and Voynich Manuscript page f57v, in which I laid out some codicological reasoning why I thought the 4 x 17 = 68 single character ring was actually a 4 x 18 = 72 mark ring, i.e. marks spaced every (360 / 72) = 5 degrees. (I also didn’t explain nocturlabes as well as I should have done, so that’s something I ought to return to soon.)

One other anomalous feature of f57v is the text in the innermost ring, three quarters of which is also made up of single characters (marked in red below). This looks to me as though as though it too might be concealing a string of marks. But on what kind of device would marks only go three quarters of the way around?

So… your Voynich thought for the day is that there is indeed a very specific type of device of great interest in the fifteenth century where the marks only go 75% of the way around: a sundial (or solar clock), which very often only cover 18 hours of a day.

Now, I’m really not saying that f57v is ‘definitely’ a sundial (in the world of the Voynich Manuscript, nothing is ever that easy): but, rather, that the idea that at least one of the text rings on this page might well be somehow connected with a sundial ought (I think) to be considered here.

I don’t recall any other theory or suggestion that explains the curious string of characters on the innermost ring: nor why (for example) it should contain freestanding EVA ‘l’ shapes, even though these hardly ever appear elsewhere in the text, or various other unknown weird characters. My strong suspicion is therefore that these are just random letters added to cover up dots and dashes in the original diagram, and have no actual meaning beyond that.

Vat. Gr. 1291 is a manuscript that has had a fair amount of Voynich-related attention over the years. A beautifully illustrated copy of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, its fol.9r contains a circular astrological / zodiacal diagram with some oddly-familiar carefully-posed naked nymphs:

Though this splendid Greek manuscript was made in the ninth century, it had one well-known bibliophile owner in the 16th century, Fulvio Orsini (1512-1600):

However, what I find intriguing is that the manuscript reappeared (or, to be a little more Renaissance-y, perhaps I should say “was reborn”) in Brescia in the middle of the fifteenth century. Which is (roughly) where we start…

Pietro del Monte (c.1400-1457), Bishop of Brescia

Though the bibliography listed by the BAV for Vat. Gr. 1291 contains over seventy entries, an accessible starting point for us is probably “A Renaissance bishop and his books: a preliminary survey of the manuscript collection of Pietro del Monte (c. 1400–57)” by David Rundle (British School at Rome, The Papers – Vol 69 (2001)). [It’s in JSTOR, if you have access to that.] Msgr Jose Ruysschaert (who we know from other Voynich studies) once planned to write a full study of Pietro del Monte, but never quite got round to it: Rundle took on the slightly more achievable task of reconstructing his library.

Rundle’s readable article paints a picture of (the perhaps quite flawed) papal apologist – who at his death was also Bishop of Brescia – as a resolute book collector much praised by (the admittedly often unreliable) book merchant and librarian Vespasiano da Bisticci. I’m sure book-sellers always liked to hear a “yes” from del Monte (*groan*). After the wannabe humanists’s death in Rome in 1457, the biggest beneficiary was Pietro Barbo (the future Pope Paul II), who seems to have inherited the bulk of del Monte’s huge library. Though some manuscripts (that Rundle speculates had been left behind in Brescia) also went to…

Bartolomeo Malapiero (d.1464), Bishop of Brescia

When Bartolomeo Malapiero was made Bishop of Brescia in 1457 on del Monte’s , he bought some of his books and manuscripts. Yes, Malapiero too was a book collector: Rundle directs us to M. L. Gatti Perer and M. Marubbi (eds), “Tesori miniati: codici e incunaboli dei fondi antichi di Bergamo e Brescia” (Cinisello Balsamo, 199), pp.151-167.

On Malapiero’s death in 1464, a good part of his library became the property of the next Bishop of Brescia…

Domenico de’ Domenichi (1416–1478), Bishop of Brescia

When Domenico de’ Domenichi, formerly Bishop of Torcello, was made Bishop of Brescia, he received (what is now known as) Vat. Gr. 1291 from Bartolomeo Malapiero, as we can see from this note added to it:

Hic liber e[st] mei dominici dedominicis ueneti epi[scopi] brixen[si] et fuit ex
libris. bonae memoriae dom[ini] bartolomej epi[scopi] predecesso[ris] mei et allatus est
mi[hi] ex brixia Roma[m] 1465 de mense septembris

We also know from this (now-lost but held on the Wayback Machine) web page I found back in 2002:

Before being acquired by Fulvio Orsini, the codex belonged to two bishops of Brescia, Bartalomeo Malipiero (1457-1464) and Domenic Dominici (1464-1478); the latter brought it to Rome in September 1465.

For the source of this information, the author (Luigi Michelini Tocci) cites “F. Boll. In « Sitzungsberichte der… Akad. Der Wissenshaften zu München », 1899, pp. 110-138; Lazarev, Pittura, cit., p. 110“.

However, there is no indication in the marginalia of where (or from whom) Bartolomeo Malapiero got it from. It could (possibly) have been Malapiero’s predecessor Pietro del Monte: but given that de’ Domenichi himself didn’t seem to know, perhaps we shall never know either.

De’ Domenichi was a very interesting character: as a well-known orator and theologian and yet also a humanist, he embodies many of the complexities of Renaissance thought. He was also a prolific book author and letter-writer, with an interest in astronomy and astrology: according to this online Italian biography of him:

He shared the general humanist interest in astronomy and astrology, and he himself wrote on these topics in some partly lost works. On 13th June 1456, upon the appearance of a comet, he wrote Iudicium comete visi in urbe romana, now conserved in two copies in the Herzog-August-Bibliothek of Wolfenbüttel (Germany): cod. Guelf. 42.3 Aug. fol. and cod. Guelf. 71.21 Aug. fol., in which he lays out his thoughts on these celestial phenomena. There is also a Quaestio de Sibyllis (Kristeller, Iter, I, p. 152). In his library could also be found manuscripts of astronomy, such as astronomical Tabulae and Ptolemy’s Almagest, Flores ex Almagesto and De astronomia of Geber Hispalensis, as well as the Tabulae [resolutae] of John of Gmunden.

Bibliography on Domenico de’ Domenichi (1416–1478)

De’ Domenichi was (I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here) also a book collector: as a source on the bibliophilic side of his life, Rundle suggests C. Villa, “Brixiensia”, Italia Medioevale e Umanistica 20 (1977), pp. 243-275. (Which I haven’t yet seen.)

There are two other books I also haven’t yet seen, both of which are, inevitably, tremendously expensive:

* Hubert Jedin, Studien über Domenico de’Domenichi (1416–1478)
* Martin Ederer (2003) “Humanism, Scholasticism and the Theology and Preaching of Domenico De’ Domenichi in the Italian Renaissance” (Ederer tenaciously tracked down 105 of de’ Domenichi’s Latin sermons from archives scattered through Europe, and included two appendixes: “Domenico de’ Domenichi’s Treatises and Letters: Synopsis of Codices”, and “A Finding-List of Domenico de’ Domenichi’s Treatises and Letters”)

Where Next For de’ Domenichi?

What I’ve written above is as far as I reached on the subject: the next step would be to use Ederer’s Finding List to track down his letters, and to see if de’ Domenichi mentioned Vat. Gr. 1291 anywhere there. Given that Regiomontanus was in Rome at exactly the same time, I would have thought that a nice-looking copy of the Handy Tables would have been like astronomical catnip to him: so there might be plenty of interest there from a history of science and astronomy aspect that the more theological biographers might not have teased out to date.

But without a day at the British Library to go through Villa’s, Jedin’s, and Ederer’s works, that’s as far as this goes for now, sorry. 😐

Following the Volkskalender and Cisiojanus logical train of thought to its next station along, the question comes whether there might be any other information we have about the Voynich zodiac nymphs that could give us a second angle to drive down, to form a kind of pincer attack.

Alert Cipher Mysteries readers might swiftly point out here that there is indeed one particular zodiac nymph that might be of interest. This is the crowned nymph on the Leo page, which I first discussed here back in 2015.


(Note that the Voynich Manuscript has two other crowned zodiac nymphs, one in Cancer and the other in Libra: but in both of these cases, the crown seems to have been added as a separate codicological layer.)

If (as I’m currently wondering) the zodiac section is ultimately some kind of embellished Volkskalender month tables, then it might well prove to be that case that this crowned Leo nymph is flagging a saint’s day or a feast day that had particular significance to the Voynich Manuscript’s composer / author / compiler.

And given that the fifteenth century Volkskalender tradition normally placed the Leo zodiac roundel on the page for July, a reasonable starting point would surely be examining Saint’s days (memorials) or feast days in July during the fifteenth century.

Saint’s Days in July

So what feast days are there in July? Sadly, the scribe of the Volkskalender I was looking at before got bored of copying the Cisiojanus syllables by the time he got to July, so we’ll instead start with the version from the German Cisiojanus Wikipedia page:

júl proces údal oc wíl ¦ kili frá bene márgar apóst al
árnolfús prax mág ¦ ap chríst jacobíque sim ábdon

The (1430) Kalendarium in Ms. GkS 79 2° in Copenhagen’s Royal Library has a nice clear Cisiojanus July list, transcribed here by Erik Drigsdahl as:

1. Iul – (Jul(i))
2. **** pro – Processio Marie
3. ces
4. o – (Odalrici
5. dal
6. oc – (Octava apostolorum)
7. et – @@@@
8. ki – (Kiliani m.)
9. li
10. fra – (Septem fratrum)
11. be – (Benedicti abb.)
12. ne
13. **** mar – Margarete v.
14. gar
15. **** ap – Divisio apostolorum
16. pos-
17. tol – @@@@
18. Ar – (Arnulphi ep.)
19. nol-
20. phus
21. prax – (Praxedis v.)
22. **** Mag – Maria Magdalene
23. ap – (Apollinaris ep.)
24. cris – (Cristine v.)
25. **** ia – Jacobi ap.
26. co-
27. bi
28. pan – (Pantaleonis m.) – @@@@
29. **** oll – (Ollego) – @@@@
30. ab – Abdon (et Sennen mr.)
31. don.

For the sake of clarity, lines with @@@@ are slightly different from the Wikipedia Cisiojanus, while lines starting **** and marked here in bold were originally marked in red (“rubricated”) in the 1430 Kalendarium to indicate that they were feast days:
* 2nd July – The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary
* 13th July – St Margaret of Antioch (I believe “v.” is short here for ‘virginis et martyris’)
* 15th July – The Dispersion of the Apostles
* 22nd July – St Mary Magdalene
* 25th July – St James the Greater (the Apostle)
* 29th July – St Ollego (a saint local to the Hainaut region, according to this analysis of Ms. GkS 79 2°, but given that the Cisiojanus mnemonics were copied and adapted all across Europe, I’d point out that it’s difficult to know whether this was added here or copied as-is from a previous document’s Cisiojanus mnemonic)

The Candidates

2nd July: The Visitation of The Blessed Virgin Mary is always going to be a likely feast to link a crowned nymph to: but there are other Marian feasts throughout the year, and why don’t they too have a similar crown?

13th July: this is the Greek feast day of St Margaret of Antioch (known there as St Marina, but normally celebrated in the West on 20th July). St Margaret was one of the saints who spoke (posthumously) to Joan of Arc. “Her remains were […] divided between shrines in Montefiascone and Venice”: many cults grew up around her, Exeter also claiming to have her skull, for example.

According to this site:

She prayed at her death that women in childbirth would, upon calling on her, be safely delivered of their child as she had been delivered from the belly of the dragon. She is also known as the patron saint of women, nurses, and peasants. She also intercedes for those who call on her from their deathbed.

15th July: The Dispersion of the Apostles doesn’t strike me as a particularly crownable feast: but perhaps some may think otherwise. It is what it is.

22nd July: oddly, even though in the modern Catholic Church this is a feast day (St Mary Magdalene), this was only made so by Pope Francis: before 2013, it was only a memorial day. Yet from the above, it would seem that it was (locally) considered to be a feast day.

“Da Vinci Code” and “Holy Blood Holy Grail” (etc) aside, there would seem to be moderately good reason to consider that what we are looking at here might be specifically to do with Mary Magdalene. She was, according to this Catholic site:

Patron of contemplative life, converts, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, people ridiculed for their piety, perfumeries, pharmacists, sexual temptation, tanners, women.

25th July: St James the Greater. He was “the patron saint of veterinarians and pharmacists”. So it would seem as though late medieval pharmacists were spoilt for choice as to which Saint to place their trust in. But was he crownable? I’m not sure.

29th July: St Ollego (presumably Oleg, perhaps a Polish saint?) I don’t know anything about.

And So My Candidate Cribs Are…

Putting all the above together, the most likely crib for the crowned Leo nymph’s label would seem to be one of:
* “pro” (for “Processio Marie”), [though I suspect this may be the weakest of the three]
* “mar” (for St Margaret of Antioch), or
* “mag” (for St Mary Magdalene)

This may not sound like much at first, but when you combine these possibilities with the labels that appear for adjacent nymphs, it may well yield surprisingly fruitful results. Hopefully we shall see… 🙂

I thought I’d post up a quick thought that came to me just now while looking at Fribourg Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire Ms. L 309 (which is yet another volkskalender, naturally). There, the page for January (f2r) begins as follows (top left):

Here, underlined in green (by me), you can see the first two big feasts of the year – 1st January (“Circumcisio Domini”) and 6th January (“Epiphania Domini”). You can also see (beneath the green arrow) the famous “Cisiojanus” mnemonic, one syllable per day.


I first posted about “Cisiojanus” back in 2009, after Steve Herbelin had suggested that the circular diagram on Voynich Manuscript page f67r2 might possibly contain at least some of it in its text. What’s particularly interesting here is that while the usual version of the mnemonic begins…

  1. cí → circumcisio domini, the Feast of the Circumcision
  2. si → (continuation)
  3. o → (continuation)
  4. ján(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  5. us(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  6. ep → epiphanias, Epiphany
  7. í → (continuation)
  8. si → (null)
  9. bi → (null)

…what we see in Ms L 309 is subtly different…

  1. cí → circumcisio domini, the Feast of the Circumcision
  2. si → (continuation)
  3. o → (continuation)
  4. ján(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  5. us(a reminder that this is the couplet for January)
  6. ep → epiphanias, Epiphany
  7. í → (continuation)
  8. er → erhard, short for St. Erhard of Regensburg (whose feast day is 8th January)
  9. hard → (continuation)

What seems to me to have happened here is that the Cisiojanus mnemonic had, in a previous version of the same calendar, been adapted for a south-western German audience. That is, the otherwise meaningless “si-bi” syllable pair in the original version had been replaced by “er-hard” to include the local saint’s name, so that his 8th January feast day would be remembered and celebrated in the couplet. And yet the scribe copying this particular manuscript didn’t seem to know who St Erhard was (he was an Irish missionary to Bavaria, who later became “auxiliary bishop of Ratisbon and possibly the abbot of Ebersheimmunstet Abbey“), because he miscopied the feast name as “Erhandi”. *sigh*

As background, the Fribourg description for Ms L 309 says that it came from “Sud-ouest de l’Allemagne“, and that the calendar section (starting on f2r) was “Très probablement du diocèse de Constance ou de Bâle; une main cursive du XVe s. a introduit dans les mois d’octobre et novembre des célébrations typiquement lausannoises (par exemple la dédicace de Lausanne au 20 oct. et S. Himier au 12 nov.).” So if this is correct, it would seem that we can loosely map the transmission path from this document from south-east Germany (where Regensburg is, in Bavaria) to south / south-west Germany, purely on the basis of the Cisiojanus adaptation.

Hence what I’m starting to think is that, zodiac crossbowmen aside, there may well be a large number of internal local features – e.g. local adaptations to the Cisiojanus mnemonic, along with local feasts and many others – that we could sensibly use to determine the transmission paths and relationships between Volkskalender B documents. It’ll need a little more consideration, for sure, but this could very easily be moving in the right kind of direction.

And finally… Voynich labels, perhaps?

Doubtless this has been suggested before (though a brief check revealed nothing)… but could it be that the Voynich zodiac labels actually hold nothing more than the syllables of a Cisiojanus mnemonic? If so, then as long as you have the right month – and the right local adaptation of the mnemonic, of course – a modern codebreaker might possibly be able to use the zodiac labels on that page as a “block paradigm” match (though you’d also need some good guesses about the correct order and direction of the circular rings of labels to follow).

For example: even though the Voynich Pisces zodiac page has “marc / mars” written over it, I suspect that the month accompanying it is in fact more likely (based on those places where Volkskalender B zodiac roundels accompany months) to be February. In which case, one version (given on the German Cisiojanus Wikipedia page) of the February Cisiojanus rhyme is:

brí pur blásus ag dór ¦ febru áp scolástica válent
júli cónjungé ¦ tunc pétrum mátthiam índe

Don’t say I don’t spoil you with good stuff. 🙂

A few days ago, when discussing the way that the Sagittarius crossbowman appears in similar fifteenth century manuscripts, I wrote that it was clear to methat we are looking at a family of manuscripts with many similar features“, and that I suspected “the real historical heavy lifting – building a complete list of these fifteenth century manuscripts, and then deriving a cladistic tree linking them all together – must have been done already“.

With some initial help from Jürgen W. in Cambridge (thank you very much!), and then a little further assistance from (the now-retired) Professor Francis B. Brévart himself, I believe I now have the basic literature framework in place that forms the backdrop to what we seem to be looking at. It will take a lot more work to fill out the picture more satisfactorily, but what follows should bring anyone interested in what I’m writing about up to speed.

German Volkskalender

There are a large number of (largely fifteenth century) manuscripts and incunabula that cover broadly the same set of material: tables of Saints days, tables for calculating the position of the moon over its 19-year Metonic cycle, tables showing unlucky days (e.g. when not to undergo bloodletting, cupping, etc), lucky days (e.g. “guldin zal”), days to take baths, days to avoid hot baths, etc. Some also have extensive sections on the signs of the zodiac and the planets: many are bound along with similar documents. As a genre, this is almost exclusively German, though a handful of Old French versions have survived.

The first person to try to properly catalogue these documents was Ernst Zinner, in his (1925) “Verzeichnis der astronomischen Handschriften des deutschen Kulturgebietes” (though with three later addenda in 1952, 1962, 1964). Their contents were often copied one from the other (though with frequent differences), but as I understand it Zinner was more interested in collating the raw bibliographical data rather than trying to offer a cladistic synthesis of them all.

The specific name Zinner gave to these fifteenth century texts was “Volkskalender“, as a loose analogy to a separate series of much later (mainly 18th century) calendars. Despite the many substantial differences between the two series of documents (and the protests from other historians, who rightly point out that these calendars were necessarily expensive, and so probably had little to do with ordinary volks at all), the name has stuck.

All the same, the bibliographic references for individual documents may well refer to them as “Iatromathematisches Hausbuch”, or “Hausbuch”, or any number of different names. Brévart (1996) is fairly scathing about the definitional hole some historians have dug themselves into here: but all that needs to be said is that they’re all essentially talking about the same group.

Brévart’s two families

Professor Francis B. Brévart spent many years looking at these specific manuscripts. From our point of view, his two most significant publications were:

* “The German Volkskalender of the Fifteenth Century” [via JSTOR], in Speculum 63 (1988), pp.312-342.
* “Chronology and Cosmology. A German Volkskalender of the Fifteenth Century,” The Princeton Library Chronicle (1996), pp.225-265.

While Brévart 1988 discusses the contents of the manuscripts and introduces the two main families these fall into, Brévart 1996 includes a substantial list of the manuscripts in the two families. You really need to read both papers to get a clear picture of these manuscripts. Thankfully they combine erudition, attention to detail, and clarity of expression: very highly recommended.

The single document from which all the others ultimately derived was an extended Kalendarium compiled by Johannes Wissbier of Gmund between 1404 and 1405. Brévart refers to the more than thirty manuscripts directly descended from this as his “Volkskalender A” family. However, Brévart 1988 continues:

“During the third decade of the fifteenth century a totally different version of the Volkskalender came into being. In addition to the Kalendarium and the treatises on cosmology, the signs, and the planets found in Wissbier’s work, it included various other texts- for example, on the labors of the months, the four temperaments, phlebotomy, bathing, purging, and the unlucky days.”

This separate set, comprising more than twenty documents, is what Brévart calls the “Volkskalender B” family. This is the family we should be most interested in.

Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family

Brévart 1996 lists (pp.250-254) twenty-six Volkskalender B documents (though also giving a useful mini-bibliography on each one, which I have not reproduced here):

* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Ms. germ. 2° 1069 [link]
* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Ms. germ. 4° 20 [link?]
* Berlin: Staatsbibliothek Hdschr. 319 [link]
* Edinburgh: The Library of the Royal Observatory, Ms. Crawford 4.6. (olim 9.14-5.14) [1478]
* Einsiedeln: Stiftsbibliothek Hs. 297 [1498] [link]
* Erlangen: Universitätsbibliothek Cod. B 27 (olim Irm. 1365) [link]
* Frankfurt: Stadt- und Universitätsbibliothek Ms germ, qu. 17 [link]
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 291
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 298 (“and 831” [?])
* Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek Cpg 557
* Karlsruhe: Badische Landesbibliothek Cod. 494 (olim Donaüschingen, Fürstlich-Fürstenbergische Hofbibliothek) [1443]
* London: British Library Ms. Add. 17987 [Warburg lo-res photos] [1446] [link]
* London: University College Ms germ. 1 [1471] [link] [UCL description]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 28 [c.1440] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 349 [c.1480] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 730 [c.1500] [link]
* Munich: Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Cgm 736 [c.1465] [link]
* Munich: Universitätsbibliothek 2° Cod. ms. 578 [1474] [link]
* Nuremberg: Staatsarchiv Hs. 426 [1430] [link]
* Prag: Narodni Muzeum Schlossbibliothek Krivoklat Cod. Ie7 (51.996)
* St. Gallen: Stiftsbibliothek Cod. 760
* Tübingen: Evangelisches Stift Msc. 17 [1462]
* Vienna: Oesterrichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 3085
* Wolfenbüttel: Herzog August Bibliothek Cod. 264.5 Extravagantes [1491] [link]
* Würzburg: Universitätsbibliothek Cod. [c.1450] [link]
* Zurich: Zentralbibliothek Ms. C 54 [c.1465] [link]

It’s possible that there are several more manuscripts in this family that escaped Brévart’s roving eye, e.g. this one as mentioned by René Zandbergen (though Brévart categorises it as a Volkskalender A family member):

* Planeten-Buch – BSB Cgm 7269, Konstanz, [BSB-Hss Cgm 7269] [1463]

The Sagittarius Crossbowman link

Why should anyone be interested in this family of documents? Simply because these contain almost all the roundel images of Sagittarius-the-zodiac-sign where what is normally depicted as an archer is instead depicted as a crossbowman.

Personally, I’m very much convinced by the previously-made suggestion that the crossbowman image in some of these documents was accidentally copied from a roundel of Sagittarius-the-constellation: and so it seems to be a very strong possibility that the Sagittarius crossbowman depicted in the Voynich Manuscript was copied from a member of the Volkskalender B family.

Moving forward, the idea would be to try to work out the relationships between these 26+ documents, and then see how the Voynich Manuscript’s section fits in to that tree. There are bound to be copies missing from the tree, for sure: but it seems to me that just about the surest way we will ever have to understand the Voynich Manuscript’s “zodiac” section is by carefully placing it in the context of Brévart’s “Volkskalender B” family, and seeing what we learn.

An interesting-sounding document referred to by Alfred Martin in 1906 (pp.174-175, thanks to Stefan Mathys!) is Cod. Sang. 760, the contents of which the St Gallen archivists describe as follows:

This manuscript, illustrated with numerous colored pen drawings, originated in a secular environment in Southern Germany or in Switzerland around the middle of the 15th century. It describes the signs of the zodiac, the planets, the four temperaments, and the four seasons regarding their influence on human health. This is followed by dietary guidelines primarily regarding bloodletting, but also regarding eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, resting and moving, as well as, in concrete terms, regarding bathing (illustration p. 101) or defecating (illustration p. 120)

As to the manuscript’s origins, the archivists suggest:

Most likely an amateur doctor with an interest in astronomy, from the Southern region of Germany, wrote the original text around 1400 and assembled it into a compendium. Later the text was repeatedly supplemented and modified.

There are numerous reasons why I’m intrigued by Cod. Sang. 760: not only its zodiac roundels, but also the sun-moon roundels on adjacent pages, and the textual focus on all the things I’ve recently been wondering whether the Voynich zodiac pages encode – blood-letting, baths, clysters (enemas), etc.

“Iatromathematisches Hausbuch” manuscripts

Yet Cod. Sang. 760 (which was only digitized in 2014) is but one of a series of “Iatromathematisches Hausbuch” manuscripts, some of which were discussed on Stephen Bax’s site back in 2015, e.g.:

* Cod. Pal. Germ. 291

* Cod. Pal. Germ. 557

…and so forth. The 30-element list of Saint’s Days that appear on twelve pages at the start of these also appear in other manuscripts, perhaps most notably this one from Konstanz in 1463 (as mentioned by Rene):

* Planeten-Buch – BSB Cgm 7269, Konstanz, Anfang 15. Jh. bis 17. Jh. [BSB-Hss Cgm 7269]

What is interesting in CGM 7269 is that not only does the Sagittarius crossbowman appear, but also the image of two people in a bath (previously used to illustrate bathing) has been appropriated for the Gemini zodiac sign.

(There’s also Tübingen Md 2, MS Cod Sang 827, and Strasbourg Ms.2.120 to consider, etc.)

I could go on, but I hope the basic point – that we are looking at a family of manuscripts with many similar features – is clear.

The copied crossbowman hypothesis

I’m acutely aware that what follows is less of an outright answer than a provocation towards approaching an answer.

The first step is hypothesizing the origins of the Sagittarius crossbowman: I now feel quite sure that it was a copying error within the basic Iatromathematisches Hausbuch manuscript family, where a crossbowman roundel originally drawn to accompany the constellation Sagittarius was miscopied into the zodiac roundel accompanying the zodiac sign Sagittarius.

This is hardly a huge departure from what has been noted before, specifically when Rafal Prinke and Rene Zandbergen asked Prof. Ewa Sniezynska-Stolot of the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and Prof. Dieter Blume (respectively) about this.

However, by positing the crossbowman drawing as a copying error, we can start to view the Voynich Manuscript’s zodiac section not just as something visually influenced by a set of manuscripts, but as a member of the cladistic tree of a specific family of manuscripts.

The iatromathematical table/label hypothesis

Structurally, these iatromathematical housebooks have quite stylized layouts and contents. For example, they typically start with a nineteen-column computus table (which was no secret at all), followed by a set of twelve tables of Saint’s Days (I believe), with 30 elements in each list.

In the Planeten-Buch, these lists have further become associated with zodiac signs, in much the same way that we see in the Voynich Manuscript (albeit in a non-obvious way).

It would therefore seem reasonable to secondly hypothesize that the contents of these tables might have (in some way) ended up as the Voynich zodiac labels (e.g. using some combination of abbreviation and acrostic), i.e. from tables to labels.

Incidentally, this would be the kind of “block paradigm” match I’ve talked about for some time here. The reason I think it is of particular cryptographic interest is that there is good cryptanalytical reason to suspect that the Voynich’s “labelese” (i.e. the version of the text used to write labels) is only a subset of the ‘language(s)’ used to write the main text. As such, labelese may well be weaker and hence easier to break.

Where next?

So far, I have only looked at a handful of manuscripts, and from these have elicited only the outline of a research angle.

But the real historical heavy lifting – building a complete list of these fifteenth century manuscripts, and then deriving a cladistic tree linking them all together – must have been done already, surely?

Can I therefore again ask my German-speaking readers for their help, this time to dig up any literature looking at this family of manuscripts as a whole?

I’m sure it’s out there, but I haven’t yet found it. All pointers, tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂