A week or more ago, I started writing up a fairly hefty post on John of Sacrobosco’s famous “De Sphaera” (which is one of the books Nicole Oresme translated into French, adding his commentary). I was particularly interested in the diagrams that appear in many of the manuscripts, and so began with Lynn Thorndike’s account “The Sphere of Sacrobosco and Its Commentators”, which describes the drawings found in three specific “De Sphaera” manuscripts:

* Oxford, Bodleian, Canon. Misc. 161, fols. 9r-19r
* Princeton University, Garrett MS 99, fols. 124ra-136vb [‘a’/’b’ means 1st/2nd column] [may have been sold to Garrett by Wilfrid Voynich!]
* Cambridge, University Library Ii.III.3, fols. 25r-35v

“Most excellent!”, I thought (thankfully silently) to myself, and so went off to try to find copies of any of the three to illustrate the post. Which… proved impossible, despite trying quite hard. And so the help I’d really like is – if anyone can find such a thing, which I have singularly failed to do – a link to an online illustrated copy of John of Sacrobosco’s “De Sphaera“.

Note that because I’d like to specifically compare these diagrams with the (slightly different) diagrams that appear in Nicole Oresme’s French translation (of which, oddly, I have a good number of illustrated copies), I’m focused on illustrations of the original Latin version that appear in the context of the text.

All That I Have

No prizes for guessing the subheading reference: but all that I have so far isn’t a great deal.

Firstly, there’s BNF MS Latin 7197 that Ellie Velinska kindly linked to a few days ago: this was (mostly) copied by 15th century Zurich physician Conrad Heingarter, and the De Sphaera is on ff.39-50, e.g. this from fol. 39r:

Unfortunately, Heingarter seems to have been copying from a largely unillustrated manuscript, because that was the only diagram there. 🙁

The other interesting set of De Sphaera illustrations is from the fascinating and beautiful Estense “De Sphaera” manuscript. However, the PDF of this available online only includes the drawings, not the drawings in their textual context. (Note: technical description here.)

Can anyone help? All tips and suggestions gratefully received! 🙂

Writer (and University of Bristol PhD student) Gerard Cheshire has recently been asking people to look at his paper “Linguistic missing links: instruction in decrypting, translating and transliterating the only document known to use both proto-Romance language and proto-Italic symbols for its writing system“. (Note that this is actually a draft, but dressed up to look as though it is to be published in “Science Survey (2017) 1” when, as far as I can tell, there is no such journal as “Science Survey”.)

His paper breathlessly reveals that Voynichese is nothing more than Vulgar Latin (though without any obvious grammar or structure). He then proposes a scheme mapping Voynich letters to normal letters (though this lacks “b/f, c/k, ch/sh, g/gh, h/j/ym v/w, x/z” [p.17]), which he then uses to “transliterate” some sentences (though shaped out of strings of words assembled from God-only-knows-how-many different European languages) into something approaching modern-day English. These sentences ‘demonstrate’ that the Voynich Manuscript is (running counter to the radiocarbon dating) actually from the 16th century, and is nothing more than a courtly woman’s health and bathing manual, a fact which every other Voynich Manuscript researcher to date has been too short-sighted to see or recognise, bla bla bla bla bla bla bla.

Errrm… really? Really? Really?

Vulgar Latin

First thing I have to point out is that there is no such (single) thing as Vulgar Latin: rather, the phrase denotes a vast family of vulgar / pidgin / hybrid Latin-ish spoken languages sprawled across all of Europe and over most of a millennium.

Every single version of Vulgar Latin was a purely local affair, nobody spoke them all at the same time – Vulgar Latin wasn’t a universal lingua franca, it was a heterogenous set of hacky vulgar dialects that helped people get by locally. And I simply don’t believe for a moment Cheshire’s implicit claim (completely necessary to his argument, but not expressed anywhere I can see) that this kind of Vulgar Latin had no structure, that each specific instance of Vulgar Latin was no more than language expressed as a diarrhoeal deluge of words that listeners teased meaning out of.

As a result, the entire linguistics mindset running through Cheshire’s paper (i.e. the comparison between a single concerted instance of a script and a vast cloud of unwritten potentialities diffusely surrounding a huge family of languages, each of which is presumed to have no structure) seems utterly wrongheaded.

As such, it makes no sense at all to compare a single slab of written Voynichese text (which gives every sign of having been written in a single time and place) with a wide set of different language potentialities (that, further, were almost never written down, and – further still – would in every instance have had a basic rationale and structure [because that’s how language works] that he requires to be absent).

A Monstrous Mash-up

Even though Cheshire puts forward his speculative translations (which he repeatedly calls “transliterations”, as if that somehow brackets out the mile-wide interpretational chasms he repeatedly has to swing across) of several sections of the Voynichese text, I’m going to give as my example here the top three lines of f82v that he discusses on pp.20-21. This is because f82v is a nice, bright, easy-to-read page in the “Balneo” quire (Q13), which means that the various EVA transcriptions speak almost with a single voice:


Cheshire’s own transcription of these lines (according to his conversion-to-letters-scheme) is as follows:

molor orqueina doleina dolinar æor domar om nar nar or æina,
dolina ræina domor nor æina æina na nas omina eimina rolasa,
nais oe eina domina domeina etna domar doma dolar dolina ro.

Let’s take each line apart in turn to see what he’s trying to get at:

molor = mollor = (soften/calm/pacify) [Latin] – because molor (grind/mill/wear) [Latin] “would be inappropriate”
orqueina = ?
doleina = therapeutic [Catalan]
dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
æor = ?
domar = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
om = hom (homine) = man [Latin]
nar nar = foolish/crazy/up-tight [Romansch]
or = ?
æina = wife [Catalan]

Cheshire’s “reasonable transliteration” (i.e. speculative translation) for this first line is: “Calming with therapeutic bathing is always certain to tame the tense man and wife“.

dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
ræina (reina) = queen [Romance languages]
domor = [domar] = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
nor = daughter-in-law [Aromanian]
æina = wife [Catalan]
æina = wife [Catalan]
na = ?
nas = ?
omina = omen [Latin]
eimina = to eliminate [Spanish and Portuguese]
rolasa = ?

His translation of the second line is: “A queen’s bath always relaxes the daughter-in-law and wife to eliminate the omen, for it to happen“.

nais = to begin/commence/create [French]
oe = ?
eina = ?
domina = lady [Latin]
dome[i]na = domain/room [Latin]
etna (ætna) = to heat/burn [Latin/Greek]
domar = to tame/control [Catalan and Portuguese]
doma = ?
dolar = ?
dolina/dolinar = bath/bathe [Romance languages]
ro = abbreviation for rogo = to ask/request [Latin]

His third line of translation runs: “Begin now the method for the lady’s domain, and heat the room to make the bathing smooth, please!

Cheshire sums up what these three lines mean as follows:

So, the passage appears to be advice for the mother (queen) of a prince to impart to her daughter-in-law as guidance for seducing her son and becoming pregnant.

Like a badly mislabeled lift, this is wrong on so many levels. Nobody reading the above should need to look through Latin, Catalan, Portuguese, Romansch, Aromanian, French, Greek, and “Romance languages” dictionaries to find words to describe this fantastical nonsense. (Though you might find Partridge’s “Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English” most fruitily germane to the task.)

Disastrous Dog’s Dinners

What Cheshire has been seduced by here is the beguiling notion that the numerous textual difficulties that Voynichese presents might all be magically explained away by a wave of the polyglot fairy’s wand, e.g. that the Voynich’s tightly-knit buzz of similar words might simply be a result of a large number of active component languages somehow feeding into the plaintext. However, it should be no surprise that these polyglot sirens appear rather different when you take a closer look at them:

For all the undoubted cleverness of Leo Levitov PhD, his particular polyglot reading of the Voynich was (as seasoned Voynich Manuscript researchers will happily attest) more or less exactly the same kind of dog’s dinner as Cheshire’s is. And this was for exactly the same reason, which is that the Voynich Manuscript’s curious text presents so many different kinds of non-language-like behaviours all at the same time that trying to read it as if it were a simple language (even a polyglot mash-up “simple language”) is never, ever going to work.

Specifically, the kind of challenging textual behaviours I’m talking about here are:
– 1) Low entropy (highly predictable, babble-like text)
– 2) Highly structured letter placement rules (e.g. highly stylized word beginnings and endings)
– 3) Two or more significant language variants
– 4) A surprisingly high (dictionary size) : (corpus size) ratio.
– 5) A generative dictionary (i.e. covering many more permutations than normal languages do)
– 6) Only sporadic word adjacency pattern matches
– 7) Neal keys (both vertical and horizontal)
– 8) Where are common words like “the” and “and”?
– 9) Where are the number shapes, number clusters, or number patterns?
– (etc)

My point here is that while it is possible to construct a proof-of-concept plaintext language to partially get around one or two of these issues, all the other pesky behaviours will then cause that ‘solution’ to sink like a Chicago Mafia whistleblower. This is all pretty much what Elizebeth Friedman was talking about in 1962 about people seeking such solutions being “doomed to utter frustration”: it’s a horrible shame that in 2017 people continue to fail to even begin to grasp what is such a basic message.

In the case of Cheshire, a polyglot Vulgar Latin reading would aim to get around points 4) and 5), but would then collapse in a miserable heap at the hands of all the other points. Anyone following Stephen Bax’s miserable lead to try to come up with their own ingenious linguistic reading of Voynichese should wise up to the whole list, because – unless you are even trying to satisfy all these oddly non-language-like constraints all at the same time – you’re plainly wasting both your own time and that of everyone else you try to convince.

Laughable linguistics

When I read nonsensical papers like this (and I can assure you that this is not an outlier, because there are plenty more of them out there), I feel a deep sadness for historical linguistics. Even for unbelievably bright people such as George Steiner (who at his peak was clearly a hugely inspirational speaker, and whose books oddly summon to mind Ioan Couliano’s syncretic layerings), far too many linguists lard their writing with speculative etymological riffs anyone else would be embarrassed to put their name to, even if they were walking home from a beer festival drunk and wearing a foolish hat. (For his sins, Cheshire throws a fair few of these soggy prawns onto his linguistic barbecue.)

And whenever I see linguistics people rap about Ur-languages while constructing metronomically-timelined millennia-spanning etymology trees (yet again), I just despair. All the while modern linguists can’t construct solid etymologies for the words we use in the 21st century, what chance do historical linguistics people really stand going back X hundred years? Honestly, some things lie beyond the limits of useful reconstruction, and trying to claim otherwise is a collective (and discipline-wide) failure.

To me, the structural problem with historical linguistics, then, is that if you remove all the brazenly bullshit stuff, what little is left is perilously close to a tree-less tundra: it remains an academic discipline, sure, but one whose grasp of history is all too often paper-thin (as is its actual use to historians), and whose pretensions to science are largely laughable.

And so I really don’t think that Gerard Cheshire should feel bad about having ended up down a garden path here, when it’s actually historical linguistics that has marched down that garden path en masse. The entire conceptual toolkit that he brought to bear on the Voynich Manuscript was as much use as a Swiss Army Knife made of soft-set jelly: sorry to have to say it in such flat terms, but the poor bugger never really stood a chance.

The problem with proposing BNF Franc. MS 565 itself as the source of the Voynich Manuscript’s inverted T-O figure is that we know that it stayed put in France (in the Dukes of Bourbon’s library, to be precise) for the whole of the 15th century. And with the Voynich Manuscript, we’re dealing with an object that has genre connections to Northern Italy (herbals, balneo) and Germany (zodiac calendar).

So it is natural to wonder not just about Oresme’s manuscripts being copied (the flow of physically copied letters) but also about Oresme’s reception (the flow of his ideas): which marks the transition from codicology and bibliophily into the realm of Intellectual History. So how did Nicole Oresme’s ideas flow out of France, and where did they end up?

Thorndike Vol IV and Oresme

Aside from chapters on Oresme’s works in Volume III of his History of Magic and Experimental Science, Thorndike often has recourse in his Volume IV to mention Oresme’s reception. For example, on pp.235-6, Thorndike describes the defence of astrology composed by John de Fundis in Bologna in 1451, “which showed that [Oresme]’s attack was still remembered, if not accepted”. Cardinal d’Ailly’s attack on Oresme in 1414 was very much along the same lines.

Blasius of Parma (1365–1416), a university professor well known for his interest in French philosophers, commented on Oresme’s work as expressed in a document “De latitudine formarum”, though this was (Thorndike p.73) “probably not by Oresme but a resume by some disciple of his De difformitate or De configuratione qualitatum, compared to which it is a dry compendium”. Interestingly, Giovanni da Fontana (whose enciphered books of machines I have mentioned here numerous times) was a pupil or friend of Blasius: and he “repeats the comparison of the universe to a mechanical clock which God had set running” [p.169], as previously put forward by Oresme. It therefore seems likely that Oresme’s influence on Fontana’s Liber de omnibus rebus naturalibus was via Blasius, rather than directly from his mss.

Moving the clock further forward through the 15th century, Pico della Mirandola referred to Haly (Ali ibn Ridwan, known in the Middle Ages as as Haly Abenrudian]’s commentary on Ptolemy and also to Oresme, who had translated that commentary into French (this is BNF Ms Franc 1348) [p.536], and also to “his precursors at the university of Paris in attacking astrology” [p.539], a list that specifically included Oresme. So I think it reasonably clear that Oresme’s shadow (or at least his anti-astrological shadow) still hung over the 15th century in a number of different ways.

Oresme: “To Infinity, And Beyond”?

Zbigniew Krol’s interesting 2016 paper on Mathematics and God’s Point of View traces practical uses of mathematical infinity back to Nicole Oresme. Krol points out [p.89] that Bernardus Torni of Florence’s In capitulum de motu locali Hentisberi (pulbished 1494) drew directly on Oresme’s work on mathematical infinities. According to Krol, “in the reception and application of Oresme’s ideas, Italy was the main territory which explains why the development of infinite methods emerged exactly there.”

Moreover, “Clagett describes examples of the use of Oresme’s diagrams, e.g. Antonius de Scarparia, Angelus de Fossambruno, Jacopo da Forli; cf. (Clagett 1968), pp. 101–10.” [p.90]. Krol also mentions Oresme’s influence on Paul of Venice (d.1429) [p.92]. Again, Jacopo da Forlì (1364-1414)‘s close connection with Blasius of Parma makes it likely that Blasius was again the middle man in the transmission.

A 1936 paper by (that man again) Lynn Thorndike called Coelestinus’s Summary of Nicolas Oresme on Marvels: A Fifteenth Century Work Printed in the Sixteenth Century Osiris 1 (Jan., 1936) talks about Coelestinus work (which Thorndike dates to 1478), and points out that it seems to derive from Oresme’s Quodlibeta. (Though this is still in France.)

Finally, We Get To Oresme’s Reception

Though the preceding text is more of a random sampling of Oresme’s reception rather than a complete picture (which would take a decade or more to build), I think the overall tendency is already reasonably clear: that to a very large degree, Oresme’s ideas failed to take root in France in the 14th century, and that it would seem to be Italy where they were to gain acceptance during the 15th century (but then only in places).

Having said that, one particular non-Italian strongly influenced by Oresme was his contemporary in Paris Henry of Langenstein (Henry of Hesse the Elder), whom Thorndike discusses in his Chapter XXVIII. All the same, Henry’s influence on the broader history of ideas seems to me to have been fairly minor: I leave it to far better read historians of science to determine the size of that influence. Incidentally, one Henry of Hesse work mentioned briefly by Thorndike at the end of this chapter “seems to have been composed at Paris, since its author states that at Paris from the time that the sun enters Aries until it enters Libra a rainbow cannot appear in the south. These very questions were ascribed to Oresme by Amplonius Ratinck in the catalogue of his library which he drew up in 1412, and the manuscript containing them is still preserved in Erfurt.” [Amplon. F. 380, 14th century]

For me, the key takeaway from all this is simply that for all his rationality, Oresme’s ideas – his infinities, his anti-astrologies, his opinions on the Greats – didn’t comfortably fit the intellectual world around him. Which is not to say he was in any honest sense of the word ‘modern’: his curious-sounding ideas about medicine are often quoted as examples of how non-modern parts of his thinking were. Yet I think it would be a mistake to cast him as an eccentric (whereas he thought very clearly) or as an outsider (whereas he worked at the French Royal Court for many years), as some accounts tend to do. Oresme seemed to think he was right at the centre of the mainstream: the problem was simply that it was at almost all times a one-man mainstream.

As for his reception, the key ‘vector’ via which many of Oresme’s ideas eventually gained currency (and, ultimately, a new intellectual home in Italy) was undoubtedly via Blasius of Parma. For Blasius, once again (and for the last time in this post), Thorndike is a good source: he notes in his 1928 article that “a manuscript of BLASIUS’ commentary on the Sphere of SACROBOSCO calls him ‘Blasius of Parma the Parisian’, and so was perhaps written when he was in Paris.”

I Lied: Here’s Thorndike Again

Reviewing all the above before posting it, I’m again struck by the tension between Thorndike and our “Roger Bacon Manuscript”. It was fine in 1929 for Thorndike to stomp heavily on Newbold’s foolish theory, but why was he so down on what he called “an anonymous manuscript of dubious value”?

That the Voynich Manuscript is a mysterious artefact yet with genuine historical interest is surely a comfortably bland point of view that can be split away from Newbold’s sensationalist (Roger) Baconian theorizing and crazy craquelure microwriting? Yet Thorndike was apparently so horrified by the nonsensical non-thinking around the VMs that the baby in the dirty bath-water never stood a chance.

But as we start – at long last, and long overdue – to collectively mine the scientific manuscripts of the late 14th century and early 15th century, who but Thorndike would you want as your wingman?

Having gone away and read (most of) Millard Meiss’s splendidly comprehensive “French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry”, and having also gone through Menut’s 1966 bibliography of Oresme’s works, I think I’m now in a slightly better position to make sense of things.

The Treatise of the Sphere

Even though Oresme made his translation of Aristotle’s “De caelo” in 1377 (it was one of the last things he wrote), he noted in his commentary at the end of Livre II that his previous book “Traictie de l’espere” (“Treatise of the Sphere”, which though ostensibly a translation from Latin into French of John of Sacrobosco’s famous De Sphaera, also adds many of Oresme’s thoughts) should be considered as a useful introduction to his translation of De caelo: and so suggested that the two books should be bound together.

This seems largely to have happened: for of the six known manuscript copies of “Du ciel et du monde”, four have his Treatise of the Sphere bound with them. Though this list doesn’t include BNF MS Franc. 1082 (the first of the six to be written), it does include BNF MS Franc. 565, which is the copy with the inverted T-O figure surrounded by the wolkenband: and the first of the inverted T-O figures is right at the start of the Treatise of the Sphere portion of the book (ff. 1-22).

Hence if we are looking for manuscripts containing the inverted T-O shape, I think we should look not only to the six copies of Du ciel et du monde (at least half of which are bound with the Treatise of the Sphere), but also to the other copies of the Treatise of the Sphere that (according to Menut, ARLIMA and JONAS) still exist:

* BNF MS Franc. 1350 (ff. 1r-38v) [formerly owned by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)]
* BNF MS Franc. 2240 (ff. 61r-95v) [ARLIMA description]
* BNF MS Franc. 7487 (though this ends with Chapter 17 out of the book’s fifty short chapters)
* BNF nouv. acq. 10045 (ff. 1-39) [ARLIMA description]
* BORDEAUX, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 0531 ff. 90r-127r [1454-1458] (bound following a Medieval health manual)
* FIRENZE, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Ashburnham 1604 [end 14th century] (owned by Iohannes Le Begue 1368-1457)
* LEIDEN, Bibliotheek der Rijksuniversiteit, MS Vossius gall. f° 010, ff. 1r-31v [15th century]
* OXFORD, St. John’s College, MS 164, ff. 1r-32r [around 1364-1373]
* VATICANO (CITTA DEL), Biblioteca apostolica Vaticana, MS Reg. lat. 1337, ff. 29r-44v [last quarter of the 15th century]


MS 1350 starts in completely the wrong way, with a non-inverted T-O figure (though tiny, it’s clear enough to make out its orientation):

Alas, 2240 commences with an empty rectangle where the same kind of picture would be; I can’t find BNF MS Franc. 7487 at all; ARLIMA doesn’t think BNF nouv. acq. 10045 has yet been digitized; BAV MS Reg. lat. 1337 doesn’t seem to have any kind of T-O figure, inverted or otherwise; and the rest I’m still working on.


I found a straightforward summary of the Treatise of the Sphere online: this says that Oxford, St. John’s College, MS 164 is the earliest copy, and was without any doubt presented to Charles V:

Mackley, J. S. (2012) Nicole Oresme’s treatises on cosmography and divination: a discussion of the Treatise of the Sphere. Paper presented to: Starcraft: Watching the Heavens in the Early Middle Ages, University College London, 30 June – 1 July 2012.

There’s more discussion on Oxford, St. John’s College, MS 164 in a 1990 paper by Edgar Laird:

LAIRD, Edgar: “Astrology in the Court of Charles V of France, as Reflected in Oxford, St. John’s College, MS 164”, Manuscripta 34 (1990): 167-76.

The JONAS page includes a single-entry bibliography:

LEJBOWICZ, 1988: “Nicole Oresme et les voyages circumterrestres ou le poème entre la science et la religion”, in : Archives Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age, 55, 1988 : p. 99-142.

Though I haven’t yet seen this article, I found that it was cited by (amongst others):

GRELLARD, Christophe: “Nicole Oresme et l’élaboration d’une science pour les laïcs, entre esbatement et contemplation”, uploaded to academia.edu

…which, among other things, compares the two very different interpretations of Du Ciel Et Du Monde put forward in…

GRANT, Edward : Nicole Oresme, Aristotle’s On the Heavens and the Court of Charles V., in : SYLLA, Edith/MCVAUGH, Michaël Rogers (éd.): Texts and Contexts in Ancient and Medieval Science. Studies on the Occasion of John E. Murdoch’s Seventieth Birthday. Leiden: Brill 1997, 187–207

…and in…

CAROTI, Stefano : Nicole Oresme : dalla questio alla glose. La presenza del dibattito universitario nelle glosse di Le Livre du ciel et du monde, in: BRAY, Nadia/STURLESE, Loris : Filosofia in volgare nel medioevo. Atti del convegno della società italiana per lo studio del pensiero medievale, Lecce, 27–29 settembre 2002. FIDEM : Louvain‐la‐Neuve 2003, 155–190.

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 sci-hub.io (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 archive.org 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?

In response to my post on BNF Français 565, Helmut Winkler very helpfully left a comment pointing to 565’s full catalogue description, which I had previously managed to miss. (D’oh!)

The relevant part of this page says:

Français 565 entra, à la mort du duc de Berry, dans les collections de sa fille Marie de Berry, duchesse de Bourbonnais (Recherches, p. 248-249, n° 154). Il resta dans la bibliothèque des Bourbons jusqu’en 1523, date à laquelle François Ier confisqua au profit de la Couronne les biens du connétable Charles de Bourbon.

All of which places the manuscript squarely in the possession of Marie de Berry, Duchess of Auvergne [not to be confused with the completely different Marie, Countess of Auvergne], who died in Lyon in 1434.

Note that we do have two well-known catalogues of the Bourbon library (Catalogue de la bibliothèque des ducs de Bourbon en 1507 et en 1523), but it will take me a while to swim through them to see if there is anything else useful.

Meanwhile, the article I’d like to read next is Beaune, Colette; Lequain, Élodie (2007). “Marie de Berry et les livres”. In Legaré, Anne-Marie. Livres et lectures de femmes en Europe entre Moyen Âge et Renaissance (in French). Turnhout: Brepols. pp. 49–66. Second-hand copies of this book are available, but are (gulp) over £110. Brepols Online offers just this article for an equally princely 23 euros: but before I dig deep into the royal coffers, may I ask if anyone happens to have easy access to this? Just askin’, thanks!

By way of comparison, the copy of Millard Meiss’s magnificent “French Painting in the time of Jean de Berry. The late XIV century and the patronage of the Duke”, New York, 1967, p. 313. (hardback, weighing 2.2kg) I just ordered was less than £10 (including postage).

Back in 2014, Voynich blogger Ellie Velinska found what is surely one of the most stunning parallels yet with any of the Voynich Manuscript’s illustrations: a splendidly detailed T-O map surrounded by a wolkenband, placed right at the start (fol. 1r) of BNF Français 565:

This manuscript dates to the start of the 15th century, and was from the library of the famous Jean de Berry (he of “Les Tres Riches Heures” fame), surely one of the greatest art patrons in history.

“Plurima Orbis Imago”

Interestingly, there is some discussion about this specific T-O map in a (very readable) 1990 French article by Arnaud Pascal: “Plurima Orbis Imago. Lectures conventionnelles des cartes au Moyen Age”. In: Médiévales, n°18, 1990. Espaces du Moyen-âge. pp. 33-51;, which also contains a good number of pictures of T-O maps. It reads:

Bien plus, en 1377, le manuscrit parisien du Livre du Ciel et du monde , traduction française du De cœlo d’Aristote par Nicole Oresme inscrit à trois reprises sur la surface d’un globe la forme T-O. Mais celle-ci a été entièrement pervertie, sinon dans sa forme, du moins dans son orientation, et plus encore dans sa signification ; l’une de ces figures, plus détaillée que les autres, nous permet en effet d’en percevoir les détails : l’hémisphère inférieur est entièrement occupé par une série d’ondulations bleues ; le quart supérieur gauche porte des ondulations vertes et bistres ; quant au quart supérieur droit, son fond vert est décoré d’arbres et d’une construction rectangulaire ; le coin supérieur gauche porte un enclos. Nous sommes bien loin ici du schéma tripartite des continents, dont le T a été renversé au profit d’une orientation qui semble être désormais au nord, et il n’est pas difficile de reconnaître dans le quart supérieur droit la terre habitée, et, probablement, le Paradis symbolisé par un enclos, et dans le quart supérieur gauche un autre monde habitable inconnu, soit qu’il soit séparé de la terre habitée, soit qu’il en constitue le prolongement inexploré ; enfin, vers le sud, ne subsiste plus qu’une vaste masse océanique… Si le symbole demeure, son interprétation n’a plus rien de commun avec celle qui soustendait le choix de son image. [p.50]

My (lightly-edited) Google Translate translation follows:

Moreover, in 1377, the Parisian manuscript of the Livre du Ciel et du monde (the French translation of Aristotle’s De cœlo made by Nicole Oresme) inscribed a T-O design on the surface of a globe three times. But here this shape has been totally perverted, if not in its form, then at least in its orientation, and even more so in its meaning; one of these figures [on f1r] is more detailed than the others, and so allows us to perceive all its fine details: the lower hemisphere is entirely filled with a series of blue undulations; the upper left quarter contains green and sooty-brown undulations; the upper right green quarter is decorated with trees and a rectangular building; its upper left corner contains a [walled] enclosure. Here, we are very far from the [traditional] tripartite continental scheme whose T-shape has been rotated in favor of an orientation which now seems to be to the north, and it is not difficult to recognize in the upper right quarter the inhabited earth, and, probably, Paradise symbolized by an enclosure, and in the upper left quarter another unknown habitable world, whether it be separated from the inhabited earth or is its unexplored regions; finally, towards the south, there remains only a vast ocean mass. If this symbol stands correct, its interpretation no longer had anything in common with that which underlies the choice of its image.

The short version is essentially that Arnaud thinks that because this specific T-O map is both rotated relative to the other T-O maps and appears to contain quite different matter in its three divisions, it is “entièrement pervertie”, and so largely stands outside the medieval T-O tradition. If this is correct, then what we are looking at in the Voynich Manuscript’s “Andromeda” T-O page would seem to be a curiously stripped-down copy of a very specific T-O map.

Jean de Berry’s library

This is the point where I’d really like to talk about the complicated dispersal of Jean de Berry’s astronomical library after his death (probably from the plague) in 1416: but I can’t quite achieve this.

The problem is that there is so much written about the sumptuous detail (and complicated painting history) of Les Tres Riches Heures, that a couple of hours on and it still feels like I’m drowning in all the Les Tres Riches Heures details. An entirely typical example of what I’m talking about is Inès Villela-Petit’s Dans le miroir du prince: Jean de Berry et son livre”.

All I’ve actually managed to find is Inventaires de Jean duc de Berry (1401-1416) publiés et annotés par Jules Guiffrey (1894-1896). There, page CLXXIII of Guiffrey’s Introduction mentions it:

52. Livre de la Sphere par Nicolas Oresme et le livre du ciel et du monde d’Aristote, traduit par le meme (Inv. A, 877 — Bibl.Nat.,ms.fr. 5G5).— In-fol. de 172 feuillets, en ecriture cursive,avec quelques miniatures (auteur offrant son livre a un prince) et figures astronomiques. Au dernier feuillet, inscription du due de Berry dans sa forme hahituelle.

…while the inventory item itself is on fol. 135v, listed as item #877 on p.230 of Guiffrey:

877. Item, un livre en françois, de l’Aristote (2), appelle Du ciel et du monde; convert d’un drap de soye ouvré, doublé d’un viez cendal, à deux fermouers d’argent dorez, esmaillez aux armes de Monseigneur, assis sur tixuz de soye vermeille.
[B, no 1003. — S G, no 469; prisé XII liv. x s. t.]

Can anyone do better and point me at a book or article (in any language) that tries to trace the dispersal of Jean de Berry’s fabulous library? Someone must have at least attempted this, surely?

Diane O’Donovan has recently commented (here and elsewhere) and posted a number of times (on her own blog) about the priority of various Voynich ideas. For any given Voynich idea, who was first to mention, conceive, propose, argue, or even (puts tin hat on head and ducks) form it into a Voynich theory outlined in the TLS?

The immediate problem (obviously enough) is that 99% of Voynich ideas are groundless nonsense, homeopathically anchored on the sands of whimsical misreading, fanciful speculation, and over-optimistic just-so-ness. As a general category, then, it’s right up there with all the “pathology of cryptology” first outlined by David Kahn and more recently buffed by Klaus Schmeh in Cryptologia.

To be sure, Diane isn’t concerned with the priority of nutty Voynich ideas, such as the “diary of a stranded alien” notion, which every few days still manages to get reposted somewhere or other on the Internet. (And that is far from the nuttiest… so please excuse me if I don’t winch myself back down into the darkling pit containing the worst of the genre.)

Rather, she has formed a set of theories about the Voynich Manuscript which she believes to be both novel and true: and she is anxious/concerned to ensure that nobody should steal those ideas (i.e. by presenting them as commonplaces, or by passing them off as their own) and thereby deprive her of her ultimate Voynich research glory. As such, asserting priority has become an increasingly big concern of hers of late.

Well… I must confess that I do have a certain amount of sympathy for the desire to look back at what has been put forward in the past. However, even though I often feel the specific need to refer to D’Imperio’s index or to grep the archives of the old Voynich mailing list, for me this is only to try to gain a richer perspective on a particular topic, e.g. by looking at the conversations around it.

A significant part of the difference between her and me would therefore seem to be that I look backwards to try to place ideas in their context and by so doing to enrich my understanding of them; while Diane looks backwards to ensure that her ideas are genuinely hers, and that she hasn’t inadvertantly taken that which is someone else’s.

To the very greatest degree, then, priority is a non-issue for me, in that it is something that will get resolved (a) only once we can definitively decrypt Voynichese, and (b) by an entirely different kind of forensic historian (i.e. not by the people doing the research). Given that I see so few genuinely productive research paths being taken at the present time, the value of worrying about priority right now is surely inversely proportional to that of finding a rich new research furrow to plough.

Voynich priority, then, for the 99% of ideas out there that are complete bullshit, is surely an utter waste of time. And for the 1% of partially tenable ideas, it’s no more than very marginally better than that, and will make only sense once the plates have been cleared away after the big Voynich solution pizza party.

Anyone who hasn’t yet grasped that the solution to the Voynich will most likely fall squarely in the middle of the wide multi-dimensional chasms between our falteringly thin tendrils of historical and cryptological insight hasn’t been paying enough attention. That solution will most likely surprise us more by its curious proximity to the many sensible things that have been said about the manuscript, not by its distance from them.

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! 😐