Monthly Archives: March 2017

Leaves with Legs?

The leaves of Plant 51r resemble beetles, but could there be any reason to add a beetle to a section devoted to plants?

It was not unusual for medieval manuscripts to include drawings of reptiles and mammals. Snakes were often drawn alongside plants that had “serpentina” in the name, snakelike roots, or which were believed to cure snake bite. Animals with names similar to plants, like camel and Camelina, were often shown next to one another.

Critters are not uncommon in herbal manuscripts and bestiaries, but they are quite scarce in the plant sections of the VMS. The dragon-like creature that appears to be nibbling on Plant 25v is the exception rather than the norm.

Are There Bugs in the Leaves?

When I first saw Plant 51r, the leaves reminded me of stag beetles, industrious little bugs that use their mandibles like a stag uses its horns, to fight off rivals vying for sexual favors. There are three “legs” on each side, a pair of “mandibles” on the outer end, and a decorative line running down the middle.

The VMS leaves are reminiscent of beetles, with the correct number of legs and rounded “mandibles” like the clawlike choppers of the stag beetle. The illustration on the right is from an early 16th-century French manuscript that includes many plants and insects accurately drawn from life. Were the VMS leaves meant to represent bugs, or is it a plant with bug-like leaves?

I’m not aware of any plants that have points coming off the leaves that are quite as exaggerated as f51v, and the unpainted line running across the middle looks less like a plant vein than most of the other plants. I’m also not aware of any plant leaves with this basic shape that have distinctively different end-leaflets. As mentioned in the previous blog, the entire plant strikes me as more stylized than naturalistic, with a somewhat anthropomorphic pose.

Would there be any reason to include beetle leaves (or other insect leaves) in a section about plants? Pliny the Elder, who was the inspiration for many medieval herbal manuscripts, mentions that stag beetles were called “lucanus” after a region of Italy in which they were used as amulets, much as the rounder, less fearsome-looking scarab beetles were used in Egypt. In the middle ages, the horns of stag beetles were said to be medicinal.

Maybe the VMS leaves aren’t beetles, maybe they are visual references to some other kind of bug. Ants were commonly included in medieval bestiaries and you would never guess they were ants if they weren’t labeled:

The ants on the top left are missing a pair of legs, but are otherwise fairly recognizable [British Library Harley MS 3244] and are somewhat similar to the VMS “beetle” leaves. The ants below them, from the 13th century, look more like centipedes or caterpillars. Those on the right are fearsome ants, drawn like dogs and bears, and it’s only because of the text that we know that they are ants [BL Cotton MS Vitellius A XV]. Another example (not shown) depicts ants as lunging hounds on leashes. Naturalism was apparently not as important as getting the concept across.

Sloane 4016, a manuscript familiar to Voynich researchers that has good drawings compared to many of its predecessors, includes an image of a spider on a web that suggests the illustrator had very little knowledge of spiders or their webs. The spider is missing a pair of legs and looks more like an ant than a spider. One might speculate that it’s a reference to a spider-like insect that was used to create red dyes, rather than an actual spider, except that it’s labeled Aranea which specifically refers to orb-weaving spiders.

Decorative Veins

The leaf dots on Plant 51r are out of character with most of the other plant drawings. Many of the VMS leaves are well drawn, accurately recording leaf margins and veins (note that this is my opinion, not everyone agrees), but this one resembles a zipper-like decorative element from a painting or piece of medieval stumpwork. It’s like the pattern on a rubricated initial or a caterpillar’s back.

Beetles have inspired art for thousands of years and often include decorative elements down the middle of the back. Left, antique pin courtesy of Ten Two Three. Right, jewelry by Court Jeweler House of Bolin, est. 1791.

If the leaf were a reference to ants, it would be hard to explain the line. But beetles have wings under a protective cover and when the two sides are slightly spread, a textural difference emerges.

Jewelers often use this anatomical feature as inspiration for adding a row of precious stones down the center of the back. Given that scarabs and other forms of beetles have been used in jewelry for thousands of years, it would not be surprising to see a decorative element added to the back of something based on a beetle.

Possible Plant IDs

What if the resemblance to a stag beetle is unintentional? Can the VMS plant be identified without resorting to mnemonics or stylistic similarities to non-botanical elements? Are there plants with bug-like leaves with exaggerated leaflets?

There are many plants with irregular, lacinated, or ruffled leaf margins, but I’m not aware of any that look like the leaves of f51r if (this is an important “if”) you narrow them down to plants that have flowers with a bulbous section under the petals, as well.

Plants with Pinwheel Flowers and Beetle-Like Leaves

Perhaps the leaves of rocket (Eruca sativa), or one of its relatives, might qualify. Rocket leaves are similar to dandelion, but more deeply indented and with fewer leaflets. The vein down the middle is a little lighter than the rest of the leaf. It has 4-petaled flowers that look like pinwheels with a slightly bulbous attachment to the stem and a narrow tap root.

Rocket, also known as salad mustard or arugula, is widely used as food and was also a medicinal herb in the middle ages. It’s a Eurasian plant common to the Mediterranean that now grows worldwide. If sufficiently stylized, a rocket leaf might resemble 51r, especially if you consider that deer like to walk along and munch off the ends of the leaves, leaving them concave instead of convex.

Groundsel (Senecio) might qualify, but the leaves are longer, with more indentations, and the flowers don’t look like pinwheels. Silene or Saponaria have the right kind of flowers, but the leaves are lanceolate, not at all beetle-like. I glanced at Edith Sherwood’s ID just now, and she has listed sea rocket (Cakile maritima) as a possible ID, but the leaves are quite a bit longer and more narrow than the VMS plant and I think Dame’s rocket (Eruca) is a closer match than Cakile.

What about sound-based mnemonics? There is a plant called beetle daisy, but it doesn’t look like 51r and it’s from S. Africa. Another called beetleweed with rounded leaves grows in the eastern U.S. Trying to search for plants with the names of insects is almost impossible unless you’re willing to sift through millions of insect pictures to find one or two plant names in each language.


The leaves of Plant 51r may have nothing to do with beetles, but I thought it worth exploring because the morphological resemblance is pretty strong and the more stylized a plant, usually the more likely it is to be associative rather than naturalistic. It isn’t the most exaggerated VMS plant, there are some that are even wilder, but it is pretty animated and that adds to both its mystery and its charm.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Things that Make Your Head Spin

Do These Heads Tell Tales?

Some of the Voynich plants have a more naturalistic feel to them, including “viola” and the “water lily”, and some have stylistic differences and less obvious botanical structures that may be mnemonic, or representative of something more than (or something different from) a botanical illustration.

Plant 51v strikes me as more stylized than many of the other plants. The leaves look like beetles, the flowers have alternating colors that remind me of pinwheels (I call them spinnerheads), the roots look like a pair of medieval hose with legs crossed, including the long pointed toes that were all the rage.

Taken as a whole, the composition has a lively dancing feel to it, but I held off writing about it because I didn’t know how to convey this impression in words.

And then I stumbled upon an 11th-century image that conveys the same feeling I get from looking at the VMS plant drawing and it has the added bonus of… alternating flower-like “petals” in the same basic colors as the VMS.

Troubadours and Jongleurs

Medieval peasants and gentry loved entertainment and many of the nobility had live-in musicians, magicians, jugglers, and poets. There were also itinerant storytellers and colorful entertainers who traveled the country in wagons, a tradition that continues today in the modern circus.

This fabulous image is startling in its tropical brightness at a time when natural earth pigments could be quite pale and subdued. The colors fit well with the theme, commemorating those who brighten our day with music and sport. Other folios with musical notation are created in a similar style.

On the left, the musician wears a jaunty two-toned shirt with red collar and cuffs, and plays a double-reed flute (a forerunner to our oboe). Each cheek sports a clown-like spot of red. His fingers are unusually long and gracefully curved, reminiscent of Balinese dancers and elegantly long Buddha fingers. In fact, there’s a gourd named “Buddha’s hand” that looks just like this. The eyes resemble those in Persian paintings that feature almond shapes and long curving eyebrows.To his right is a person of small stature. Dwarves and midgets had limited opportunities for employment in the middle ages, so those with special talents often ended up as entertainers in royal courts. It is said that a gifted poet whose name may be featured on the Bayeau tapestry may have been a dwarf. Like the musician, the juggler has stage-makeup cheeks, very long, eastern-style fingers, and two objects that may be balls or some kind of round object that he is deftly spinning on his fingertips. There is a second folio that repeats this theme and shows the balls high in the air.

Musician and juggle in the Tropaire-Prosaire à l’usage d’Auch, c. 990 to c. 1010, Abbey Saint-Martial de Limoges

It’s tempting to think the manuscript was created by someone from the southern or eastern Mediterranean (or someone influenced by eastern art), but it’s illustrated by the painter of the lectionary of the library of the Abbey of Saint-Martial in Limoges, France, and much of the painter’s work shows Roman influence rather than eastern. The same painter is said to have worked on a large number of manuscripts.

Even the images with Roman themes have very long pointed fingers, mixed with fingers of normal proportions with rounded ends. The large portions of blue pigment in the jongleur images are absent in many of the other drawings, giving these pages a special look and feel.


I don’t have time to look into the Tropaire-Prosaire à l’usage d’Auch in more depth, but I thought Voynich researchers might enjoy the unique style of the image, and the juggling balls that resemble the VMS flowers. I don’t know if the pattern on the balls is meant to be decorative or to simulate the motion of spinning balls, but it’s one of the few examples of alternating orange and light “petals” that I’ve seen so far.

Getting back to the VMS plant, the shape of the plant very much reminds me of a dancer. Whether this is accidental or intentional, I can’t be sure, but if it is intended to be botanical, perhaps the unusual pose has some stylistic or mnemonic significance to the plant.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

VMS F1r Column Text, updated chart

On October 24, 2016, I posted a blog about the partly erased vertical alphabet in the right column of folio 1r.  Over the next month, I added o, p, and q and one more sample of handwriting. The text is probably marginalia, it doesn’t appear to match any of the other text in the manuscript, but it may reveal a few things about the manuscript’s provenance if a match can be found.

I’m enclosing the revised chart illustrating similar hands as an addendum to the previous post, which you can read here. You can click on the revised image to see it full-sized:

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2016 & 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Mayhem, Macaroni-Style

It’s a challenge to read old manuscripts. Language has changed, writing styles were very different, a bewildering array of abbreviations occupies each sentence like a mine field, and there were no spelling checkers (or hard-and-fast rules about spelling) in the 15th century. To complicate matters, scribes often copied manuscripts in languages they didn’t fully understand.

The last page of the VMS reads like a cryptic alphabet soup, but are texts with blended languages that unusual?

Support for Billy Goat Liver?

My gut feeling, even before investigating it, was that blended languages were bound to occur in societies where a second language was an essential tool of commerce and scholarly correspondence. But a sixth sense and real data are two different things, so I kept my eyes open for an unambiguous example and found one, and inside was the most surprising Easter egg, something I never expected…

BSB CGM 8137 is a tract on fishing and has no obvious connection to the VMS, but the recipes use many of the same ingredients as folk medicine, so it reads very much like a medical manuscript. It mentions tormentilla, wine, beer and “pockleber” (goat liver)—that was the surprise! Finding goat liver is not particularly unusual, but finding goat liver in a manuscript that blends languages in such a quirky way made me sit up and take notice…

As far as I’m aware, no one has mentioned CGM 8137 “pockleber” in connection with the VMS, but it’s important because it demonstrates that this ingredient was used in ways other than cooking and might relate to the words written at the top of folio 116v. The spelling is different, but substituting “x” (Greek chi) for hard-h, ch, or ck was not unusual and “p” was often used where modern German uses “b”.

If poxleber and pockleber refer to the same thing, then this manuscript offers evidence to support the interpretation offered by Johannes Albus and anyone else who may have read the text as “goat liver”.

I was happy to find this example for two reasons:

•  it offers evidence that pockleber (both the word and the ingredient) was probably in use in the 15th century, and

•  the script is an excellent example of mixed language. CGM 8137 demonstrates that macaronic text was in practical use.

I’ve long wondered if some of the not-quite German words on f116v that are mixed with readable German might be fractured Latin (mixed in with accepted Latin) and that some of the text on the second line might even be Spanish. Here is an excerpt from fishing recipe #12 to give an idea of how intimately languages could be blended. Note also that the interpretation of “pockleber” as a compund word is unambiguous, as “leber” is mentioned again, by itself, on the fourth line:

Item rec[ipe] mayen et prachmonet pro piscib[us] et cancris ain pockleber et assa bene, pus?post? assacionem sparge desuper pulverem de gaffer. Postea? recipe das kalbs netzlen oder schaff netzlen das da frisch ist, und schlags umb die leber. Postea liga super asserem parvulum ad capiendum pisces et cancros…

The first word, “Item”, was widely used in both German and Latin, and “recipe” is middle French for “medical prescription”. Then there’s an odd combination of month names, the first Latinesque (mayen), the other German (prachmonet) (note that once again, a “p” has been substituted for “b”). Brachmonat is June in German, and calendars illustrating the month’s labors often illustrate June as a farmer tilling his fields. The next four words are Latin, followed by two German words (ain pockleber), and three more in Latin instructing the reader to dry or roast well.

The month names really caught my eye. You would think the writer would choose one language or the other for related concepts in the same sequence, but apparently there was no impulse to organize the languages this way.

The other recipes are interlaced in the same way.

It’s significant that German and Latin are mixed not just line-by-line (as in macaronic verse) or phrase-by-phrase, but sometimes word-by-word.

That’s the important part. If “pox leber” turns out to be German and even if “pfer” at the end turns out to be a German word like “pferd” that doesn’t mean the words in between have to be German. If CLM 8137 is any example, the word “um?n” and some of the German-looking words on the last line could be Latin (or something else).

The Possibilities…

CGM 8137 was created about a century after the VMS, so it’s not an exemplar, but “goat liver” was no doubt a common phrase—goats were an integral part of medieval society—which means that other examples might be found, as additional manuscripts are scanned and read.

This isn’t proof that “pox leber” says goat liver, there may be other interpretations, but it is greatly intriguing, especially considering polyglot manuscripts have been found to exist.


J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Why Clone the Crayfish?

Shellfish Anatomy 101

In a previous blog, I described the unusual placement of the legs on the “crayfish” in the “zodiac” section of the Voynich manuscript. Like traditional zodiacs, the crayfish or lobster occupies a position between images that we associate with Gemini and Leo. In the VMS, these positions include a courting couple and a large feline. In a traditional zodiac, in this order, the crayfish symbolizes Cancer but I’ll refer to it as a “crayfish”, which is a freshwater cousin of the lobster, because we can’t be certain this is a zodiac. Crayfish can be found in other zodiacs, but the VMS differs from them in some unusual, almost eccentric ways.

Dinner for Two?

You have to wonder why the illustrator drew two crayfish, especially when they are surrounded by naked nymphs. Could this be a romantic dinner for the courting couple? Both lobsters and crayfish have been eaten for thousands of years. Even if dinner wasn’t on the illustrator’s mind, the pairing of crayfish in a zodiac setting is unprecedented. It’s long been acknowledged that the naked nymphs are unusual, but the details of the crayfish deserve some points for originality, as well.

It is traditional for Pisces to be drawn with two fish, but why are there two crayfish? One crusty critter is the norm.

The “string” is unusual, as well. In the VMS, the crayfish are joined by a line. This little detail is usually reserved for Pisces. The VMS fish are joined by a traditional line, but the line itself is unusual. It curls outside the fish instead of in-between and, like many other parts of the manuscript, it ends in a star.

It’s not unusual for a line to connect the fish, many images of Pisces have a string or garland connecting them, due to a row of stars that occurs in this position. The extra fins are not unusual either as there are depictions of fish, in zodiacs and bestiaries, that have more fins, but the VMS is unusual in that the line curls outside of the fish rather than between them, as in the examples on the right from BNF Latin 924 and 1176.

So, the VMS crayfish are arranged in a way that is typical for Pisces, not Cancer. Normally only Pisces and Gemini are paired.

I’ve collected almost 500 zodiac cycles created prior to 1560 and have only found one that pairs several of the symbols, and it stops pairing them after Gemini, almost as though someone came along and tapped the illustrator on the shoulder and said, “Uh, no, you don’t have to pair all of them, just Pisces and Gemini.”

Morgan M.511 is an attractive calendar created in Bologna, c.1326. The zodiacs and months’ labors are drawn within circles, with trees in the background and, in an unusual departure from tradition, the first five symbols are paired.

There doesn’t appear to be a direct stylistic connection between the Bologna zodiac and the VMS. Morgan M.511 follows the Greco-Roman style—Cancer isn’t paired, and is depicted as a crab rather than a crayfish, the scorpion is naturalistic, and Sagittarius is a four-legged centaur with a longbow. The circular motif and the trees may be similar, but everything else is different. The VMS symbols include a bull-like animal eating from a basket, a “lizard” Scorpio, and a very uncommon two-legged Sagittarius with a crossbow.

So where do crayfish-style zodiacs originate?

An early example of Cancer the crab was created at the Monastery of Reichenau, in Germany, around 900 C.E. Obviously, the crab as a zodiac symbol was known in central Europe. But Vatican, created at the St. Maria Rivipulli monastery in 1056, diverges by using a crayfish rather than a crab. I mentioned this manuscript in previous blogs because it breaks from tradition in a few other ways.

Rivipulli (Ripoll) is not far from the Spanish coast, less than 60 miles, so one might expect a traditional crab, but it is at an elevation of 2300 feet at the confluence of two rivers, where the small monastery community may have been more familiar with freshwater crayfish than saltwater crabs. Before it was overharvested, crayfish was a popular food in Spain and the name for crayfish in Spanish is congrejo de rio “river crab”.

Not long after the Rivipulli manuscript was created, a zodiac cycle was carved into the Basilica of St. Madeleine in Vézelay, in Burgundy, France. The building has been sacked and neglected over the years, but the main tympanum is said to date from the 1100s. I don’t know if any of the stone zodiacs have been replaced, but Cancer is a crayfish or lobster with a curled tail.

Travel and Traditions

Is there a connection between S. Maria Rivipulli and the Burgundian basilica? Maybe. Both were Benedictine monasteries and there appears to have been regular communication among monasteries even in the days when travel was difficult. The Digital Walters collection includes another very early example of a crayfish zodiac from France, said to be from the 12th century. Like the Burgundian crayfish, it has a curled tail (Walters W.734). Similarly, Walters W.26 includes a four-legged crayfish from circa 12th century, from Augsburg, Germany.

One has to be cautious when tracing geographical transmission from scant examples, and similar traditions sometimes emerge independently in different areas, but looking at some of the other zodiac symbols in conjunction with this one, it seems possible that the crayfish “tradition” may have started in Catalonia and spread to France and, from there, to Germany.

The following diagram illustrates crayfish/lobster zodiac symbols that were substituted for crabs and when they appeared. Note that the dates and geographical origins of these manuscripts is often unknown and have been estimated by the repositories holding them. This map is specific to the VMS and does not illustrate all the crayfish zodiacs (I found 165 of them). It includes the ones that most closely resemble the crayfish with the curves on the carapace in the Voynich Manuscript. You can click on the map to see it full-sized and to read additional statistics about examples not illustrated:

So Why Two Crayfish?

Is the paired crayfish somehow related to the paired ram and bull pages, or was the VMS illustrator intending something specific to Cancer? I’m not sure, but I have a couple of ideas…

Each constellation has a naturalistic image, representing the position of the stars, but there is also a shorthand version for textual references. As mentioned in the previous blog, the symbol for Aries is similar to the “red weirdo” on the first page of the VMS. It looks like a ram’s head with two horns.

The traditional zodiac symbol for Cancer is a long-tailed 69, reminiscent of the claws of a crab (or perhaps two crabs in a whirling duet). Could the duplication of the two crayfish in the Voynich manuscript be a reference to the zodiac glyph? Would someone go to the trouble of drawing a second crayfish to mimic a symbol when the identity of the animal is already pretty clear?

That’s one idea but it lacks that special feeling you get when you cast your hook in the water and get a big tug on the line. So, I have another idea… if you look closely at the two crayfish, you’ll notice the green one has the two curved shapes on the carapace, but the red one does not. Was this an oversight, or do the two crustaceans represent different things? Maybe the upper one is a crayfish and the lower one is a lobster and the illustrator wanted to include both fresh- and saltwater species. It’s clear from the plant drawings that someone working on the manuscript had a strong interest in the natural world. But how do you explain the line running between them? Why would a Pisces tradition be applied to the crayfish as well? Is it a way of saying there’s a relationship between fish and crustaceans and between lobsters and crayfish? or is the anomaly somehow related to the text?


The paired crayfish are puzzling indeed, but it was worthwhile surveying zodiacs to discover that about 1/3 of those created between the 11th and 16th centuries specifically use crayfish instead of crabs and that they cluster in certain geographical regions.

Cancer as a crab from British Library Royal 1.D.X psalter (c.1210).

Even if the pairing remains a mystery, it’s useful to know that zodiacs from England, Switzerland, Italy, and Arabic-speaking regions were almost entirely crabs. Manuscripts from France were a mixture of crabs and crayfish (as were Hebrew manuscripts), but the crayfish/lobster was the crustacean of choice in Germany, comprising 75% of the medieval Cancer symbols surveyed so far.

Looking back at the map for zodiacs with a crossbow, we find that Sagittarius symbols created in the early 15th century also cluster around southern Germany, with one earlier example from Prague. Unfortunately, two is not enough to prove a pattern…

So what about lizard-Scorpio, another unconventional animal-symbol in the VMS menagerie? Is it also primarily from southern Germany? Nope. Nothing is ever easy when trying to understand the VMS. In southern Germany, when Scorpio diverged from tradition, it was usually in the form of a turtle. The dragon Scorpios are mainly from England and the lizard Scorpios from northern France.

How does one explain the geographical discrepancy? Was the VMS illustrator someone who traveled and dropped in on libraries along the way?

It was not unusual for scholars to do undergraduate work in Heidelberg or the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire (what is now northern Italy) and then travel to Paris or Naples/Salerno for graduate studies, or the other way around.

The Voynich manuscript is very orderly but would be atypical if it were created by monks. It’s not impossible for it to be the work of monks—merchants and sailors sometimes took up the cloth in later years and brought their secular ways with them—but it feels more like a secular document.

I’ve long suspected that the creator was exposed to a variety of sources and didn’t rely on one exemplar or one kind of exemplar. Whoever masterminded it had the discipline to work out the separate parts and stick with a project that may have taken months or years, skills that could have been learned in a scholastic environment. It seems a bit esoteric for a merchant’s reference. Why would a merchant want wheels full of naked nymphs and pages and pages of naked nymphs bathing? Merchants are practical and time-conscious and even though trade secrets were heavily guarded, a medieval merchant probably wouldn’t have any more patience for an encoded reference than today’s businessmen.

I’m more inclined to think the VMS was for personal use of a college professor, an apothecary, or a physician to a royal court. Whether it was for a patron, or created by whoever intended to use it, I really can’t tell. Either way, a lot of work went into it and the eccentric details probably aren’t accidental.

J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved