Author Archives: J.K. Petersen

Fractured German & Fishing Expeditions

VMS Marginalia—Who Wrote it and Where?

The last page of the VMS has always struck me as similar to a pidgin pigeon language. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, it’s mostly but not quite readable in German and I often wondered, in the early days of studying the manuscript, whether it might be medieval Yiddish. Even though there are many dialects of Yiddish, as are described in some detail by Alexander Beider, I didn’t want to commit too strongly to this idea because many medieval scholars studied at universities in several countries and picked up bits and pieces of local languages along the way—there could be several explanations for the mostly-but-not-entirely-German nature of the script.

When I was looking into medieval languages that might have some relevance to the VMS, one of the blended languages I found particularly interesting was the pigeon-Icelandic spoken by the Basques. Icelandic is not an easy language to learn and Basque doesn’t resemble it in any way, and a visit to the little island requires a treacherous sea ride over particularly rough waters, so I wondered why the Basques would be motivated to learn a distant and seemingly impractical language like Icelandic, but it turns out that Basque whalers hunted the north Atlantic with some frequency and may have stopped on Iceland for rest, repairs, and supplies, eventually learning bits and pieces of a language very different from Basque (which is itself very different from most European languages).

The whaling trade was one of the reasons sailors ventured into the perilous arctic, where they stopped in Iceland and, later, the remote town of Spitzbergen on an island far north of Norway. This is believed to be the first map of Spitzbergen, in the Arctic hinterland, published in 1599, and whales are prominently featured in its waters. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Basque oral history claims that the Basques discovered the New World before Columbus, something I think is entirely plausible—if you can make it from the Iberian Peninsula to Iceland, you can surely reach Greenland, and from Greenland to North America is a short hop compared to the original trip to Iceland.

A Basque cemetery dating to about the mid-1500s was unearthed in Labrador, Canada, and Basque shipwrecks have been found off the coast of Red Bay.

It’s possible some of the whale hunters reached the New World before 1492 following the same routes as the Vikings, and it occurred to me that they might have brought back plants that otherwise were not known in the Old World, but it doesn’t seem likely that whalers would be concerned about physically documenting plants. Whaling is a practical trade, not an exploratory venture (unless you’re exploring for new places to fish), and botanists weren’t usually passengers on whaling ships headed for the New World until after Columbus’s voyage. So I put the Basque-Icelandic-New World plants idea to the side for the time being and looked for other interesting language combinations that might shed light on the VMS.

Linguistic Alphabet Soup

Inspired by the Basques’ willingness to learn Icelandic, I sought out other blended languages and found so many of them, it will take years to sort it all out. As examples, the language of the Veneto includes many Spanish words and some Latin/French constructions, as well as influences from Dalmatian, Greek, and Albanian. The area north of the Veneto has a great diversity of languages, and the region of Provençe and northern Spain is rich in blended dialects. Lombardic in its original form was southern Scandinavian and other germanic dialects mixed with northern Italian.

Any region that was a crossroads for trade, or a hotly contested area in which the borders were constantly shifting, was usually rich in variations that might seem like polyglot to the modern reader.

How does this relate to the Voynich manuscript? Perhaps the marginalia seems strange because it is from a linguistic melting pot, but there are so many I can’t fit all of them into one blog, so I’ll start with Silesian, as it would follow naturally from my previous blog about VMS Sagittarius, and includes German dialects that might result in text that looks mostly like German but is confusing to read.

Silesian History

Silesia is on the shifting border between Poland/Prussia and Czech/Bohemia. Breslau/Wroclaw was at its center in the 14th and 15th centuries, when Wroclaw was part of Bohemia.

This area is mentioned in previous blogs as the origin of the oldest-known example of crossbow-Sagittarius. It is also the birthplace of a German-Silesian dialect that was almost eradicated after World War II, when the language was banned by the Communists. Both during and after the war, millions of Jewish and German inhabitants from this area were murdered and expelled by Nazis and Communists, forever wiping out a huge percentage of Silesian language, culture, and history.

The Silesian Language

Even though the Polish border is farther south now than it was in the Middle Ages, Silesian is still a dominant language in the section of Poland between north Poland and eastern Czech, so this region still retains a certain amount of linguistic and cultural autonomy. To the north and east are greater and lesser Polish and to the west, along the Baltic, are a number of mixed dialects. South of Silesia are a variety of Slavic languages and to the southwest, the primary language is Czech [map detail courtesy of Wikipedia]. Before WWII and especially during the Holy Roman Empire, there was a strong German presence. Before the Holocaust, this area also had a significant Jewish population.


Silesian-German, a dialect of Silesian, has Franconian, Thuringian, and Saxon roots and today, due to the purges, only a small region west of the Oder-Neisse still retains the language, which is undoubtedly different from what it was in the middle ages due to the modernizing influence of German radio and television. Historically, though, many Slavs spoke German and the Germans, with their blended Silesian-German, understood Slavic-Silesian.

The Lach Dialect

In the same area, one finds the Lach dialect, a west-Slavic blend of Czech and Polish that was spoken from Silesia to Moravia. In the middle ages, some forms of Czech and Polish were mutually intelligible and today Lach is considered by some to be a dialect of Czech, and the forerunner (or at least a strong influencer) of modern Polish.

Lach may soon die out, just as Lombardian is dying out. The Lach youth are learning Czech and the Lombardic youth are switching to Italian—both languages may be gone in two or three generations but these and many others were alive and closer to their original forms when the Voynich manuscript was created.

We can only guess at how Lach and Silesian-German sounded in the 15th century, when Polish and Czech cultures intermingled with Saxon German (which itself included Nordic influences), but we do have some idea of how they were written from a number of manuscripts that have survived.

So Silesia is a region where many dialects existed in a small geographical area and where language shifted and blended, due to frequent changes in political rulership and immigration.

Pinning Down the Dialect

Might Lach or Silesian-German explain some of the peculiarities in the somewhat germanic text on 116v?

It depends how one interprets the words. If “pox” is meant to be “boch” (billy goat) then we already have some clues. The substitution of p for b was quite common in areas like southern Germany/Lombardy, Augsberg (which was written “Augsperg”), Dinkelsbühl, and certain towns along the Swiss-German border.

Substituting “x” for “ch” was less common than substituting “p” for “b” but it did happen in some areas, especially those in which Greek was taught along with Latin. The familiar abbreviation xpo/xps/xpi/xpt for Christ (see right) is derived from Greek, with the x and p at the beginning descended from “chi” and “rho”. Thus, one occasionally sees chi (x) used for “ch” in Latin or other texts. Putting those pieces together “pox” becomes “boch” (goat) as suggested by Johannes Albes (and perhaps others).

It is not only the way the words are spelled, but also the way the letters are written that provide clues. The use of a figure-8 for D or S was not common uncommon (I’m leaning toward this being S since the previous D has an open loop and a word like “portas” is more likely than “portad”) but I sometimes wonder if it’s a ligature, or a symbol for another sound, such as ç or z as it is pronounced in Castilian Spanish.

Usually the figure-8 shape was written slightly asymmetrical to distinguish it from the number 8, but in a few areas (e.g., eastern France), the difference between “d” and “8” was less distinct and discerned by context. On folio 116v there aren’t enough instances of the figure-8 character to know for certain whether it’s D, S, or something else, but the fact that it exists in the marginalia (and possibly also in Voynichese) might be a regional indicator.


So, for quite a number of years, I have collected information on regional dialects, along with samples of text with scribal hands that resemble those of the main text and the last-page marginalia. When evaluated together, I was hoping they would help geolocate the VMS scribes.

This is a slow process and a certain amount of luck is involved. Many manuscripts have been lost in wars and fires and many sit unseen in private collections and libraries, so the odds of finding a match to the VMS handwriting is not very good. Nevertheless, I decided to try.

To date, I have about 600 hands that bear some resemblance to the handwriting of whoever penned all or most of the text on 116v. I had to study about 6,000 manuscripts to locate these samples, so only about 10% of the hands surveyed so far were similar enough to include in the sampling.

To evaluate the hands, I developed a mathematical system that describes each letter individually and the alphabet as a whole, and which also assigns scores for pen width, slant, letter spacing, and word spacing.

Unfortunately, neither the main text nor the marginalia provide a full alphabet but I am strongly convinced that the hand on f116v is the same as that on f17r, which helps fill out most of the alphabet for the marginalia, except for “k”, “q”, “y”, “z”, and “w” (“w” was not used in Latin but was in German). In Latin, there was usually no distinction between “u” and “v” but one was sometimes made in German, and the marginal writer does appear to write “u” and “v” differently, so I treated them as separate letters. The letter “j” was not typically used in the early 15th century. Normally the j sound was expressed with “iu” or “io” and sometimes written with an embellished “i” that resembles a modern “j”, but the “j” wasn’t usually treated as a separate letter when the VMS was created).

Thus, 20 letters are available for comparison (plus the figure-8 character, which might stand for terminal-S, D, or something else, and was not included due to its status being unknown).

When given numeric scores for similarity ranging from 1 to 6, with a perfect match for all the letters being 120 (not counting the spacing and slant variables), it becomes possible to search and sort the samples, and more objectively compare various hands to the VMS.

A Brief Overview of the Results So Far

Out of approximately 600 reasonably similar hands, only 18 scored 80 or higher on a scale of 1 to 120. This form of writing is loosely called Gothic cursive, although there are some traces of book-hand mixed in and it is sometimes referred to as Gothic quasi-cursive.

These are the ones that are most similar:

[Postscript 9/7/17: I noticed a copy-paste error in Row 7 Column 1 (the letter A), so I have corrected it and re-uploaded the chart.]

As can be seen from the top ten examples, which scored from 81 to 87, the scribes who wrote in hands most similar to the VMS marginalia did not typically write an unlooped “d”, a flat-bottomed “b”, or a “u” with serifs—the VMS hand differs in these respects not only from the hands that most closely match, but also from hands that scored in the 70 to 79 range, so these characteristics can be used as markers to help recognize an individual person’s writing. Unlooped “d” is not uncommon, it is simply less common in hands that most closely match the overall alphabet for the marginalia.

What especially surprised me about these 10 samples, which I hoped would help geolocate the marginal writer, is that historians and bibliographers don’t know where they came from. Seven out of ten have undocumented origins. In contrast, the origins of those that score in the 77 to 80 range are mostly known.

Is there a bigger mystery surrounding manuscripts with hands similar to the marginalia writer’s? Could there be a group of manuscripts from a particular area that were obtained or transmitted in some unusual way? We know that the VMS is listed in the Vatican catalog, but never made it to the Vatican library because the Jesuits, under a promise of secrecy from Wilfrid Voynich, sold it to the book dealer from America rather than conveying it to the Vatican. Might there be other manuscripts with shadowy histories?

Patterns in Subject Matter

When looking for handwriting samples, I scoured every kind of document I could find, including incunabula, legal documents, and manuscripts. I didn’t want my assessment of the handwriting to be influenced by the subject matter or source of the documents. Once I had enough samples, I began to study their subject matter. The top samples (which include documents with both known and unknown origins) fall into the following categories:

  • Alchemical (1 example, origin uncertain, possibly Austria, Bohemia, or Germany c. last half 15th century)
  • Saintly Miracles (1 example from a manuscript written in several different hands, the sampled hand may have been added c. 1400?, possibly from Germany)
  • Collections of sermons or theological treatises (3 examples, possibly from Germany, but this is not certain; 1 example of unknown origin; 1 example from Lund region; 1 late 15th-century example from the Alsatian region)
  • Mortuary Roll (2 examples in a document that includes different hands from different regions, 1458 to 1459, possibly from Flanders/Normandy area)
  • Armorial Roll (1 15th-century example in a Tirolian collection that includes different hands from different regions)
  • Homer’s Epic (1 example from Naples region, possibly late 1300s)
  • A handbook of fortune-telling, charms, medicine, virtues of plants (1 example from England, possibly mid-1400s)
  • Selected stories of Petrarch (1 example from S. Germany, c. mid-1400s)
  • Frontismatter in another hand on a c. 1380s Czech book of hymns and prayers (1)
  • Endmatter on a back leaf in another hand on a manuscript from c. 1300 Bologna, but which is housed in Germany and may have been added to in Germany in the late 14th century
  • Legal document: 1360 Charles IV grant (1 example from Nuremberg, Germany)
  • Astrological text with zodiacs (1 example, possibly from the Alsatian region)
  • Tristan and Isold themes (1 example, c. 1330, Veneto)

Clearly, those who used this style of writing come from several different areas and a number of different occupations and copied or wrote on different subjects. The examples range from the early 1300s to the late 1400s, a time period that is consistent with the use of Gothic cursive in general and which could indicate marginal writing that is either contemporaneous with the VMS, or later, or even earlier (although this seems less likely as there are two Voynichese tokens inline with the rest of the text on f116v).

The examples are both ecclesiastical and secular and only include a couple that delve into the occult. None of them are specific to herbs or bathing, although one does mention plants and includes charms (Trinity College MS O.1.57) and uses the Greek sigma symbol as a terminal-s. For the most part, however, they are practical collections of knowledge. None include cipher script. The only significant pattern that emerges is that the majority, where origin is known, are from germanic regions, which is perhaps not surprising, since the marginalia itself is somewhat germanic.

I have much more data and commentary than I’ve posted in this brief summary, and will report further on the marginalia (and on the main text) as I have time.


J.K. Petersen

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

The Archer in Cod. 1842

Discussions about the Earliest Crossbow Sagittarius

There is currently an interesting (and lively) discussion about Voynich Manuscript history on K. Gheuen’s VoynichTemple site. I tried to post a long comment, but I’m not sure if it got through (maybe it was too long—several error messages popped up), so I’ve decided to expand it and post it with images as a blog instead.

This blog was inspired by the following comment:

“Nick: On Stephen’s site, Marco and Darren discuss a number of examples and the earliest crossbow-sagi-roundel is from Poland…

This is an easy mistake to make, even by good researchers like those mentioned. Political borders are constantly changing and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of where they were at any particular point in history, but Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 1842, the earliest manuscript so far that depicts Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow, is not from Poland. It originates in Bohemia, in the Holy Roman Empire.

Some Background

The zodiac-symbol roundels are perhaps the most recognizable series of images in the VMS next to the plants, and I have always been interested in the history of astrology, so in 2014 and 2015, I was independently researching every Sagittarius with legs that I could find because I was used to seeing centaurs with longbows, not people with crossbows (I had also researched the other symbols but have posted them as separate articles).

In 2015, I superimposed my findings on a map of the Holy Roman Empire because that is where the majority of images originated. I searched far outside these borders (including Russia, Persia, India, north Africa, and the far-east because I am interested in zodiac imagery from around the world, but was not able to find anything similar to the VMS zodiacs outside of western Europe and the Levant.

The crossbow-Sagittarius map can be seen here.

The crossbow-Sagittarius mentioned by researchers on Bax’s site is listed by the Österreichichische Akademie der Wissenshaften as Cod. 1842, originating from Prague and Breslau (now known as Wroclaw). From 1335, Breslau was in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Even in 1386, the Kingdom of Bohemia stretched just beyond Olesnica, and Breslau was still well within its borders (the Bohemian Kingdom is sometimes also called Królestwo Czech—the Czech Kingdom).

For the half century that is most relevant to the creation of the Voynich Manuscript, Breslau/Wroclaw (300 km NE of Prague) was within the borders of the Bohemian/Czech Kingdom ruled by a German-born Bohemian King who also served as Holy Roman Emperor. [Underlying map detail courtesy of Wikipedia.]

The Bohemia/Czech Kingdom was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the late 14th and early 15th century, reigned at the time by Wenceslaus IV, who was both King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. Wenceslaus was German, born in Nuremberg. Prague is about midpoint between Nuremberg and Breslau.

During the search for crossbow-Sagittarius, and while gathering several hundred historic zodiac cycles, I found

  • about eight Sagittarius with legs and a longbow (all within the Holy Roman Empire, with the exception of the Beit Alpha mosaic), and
  • a dozen Sagittarius with legs and a crossbow, all within the Holy Roman Empire, and all except one (Cod. 1842 from Bohemia) were from Germany or very near the border between what we now call Switzerland and Germany.

Although I tried to locate crossbow-Sagittarius from a wider geographic distribution, I was not able to find any from Scandinavia, the Baltic, the British Isles, Italy, Russia, Georgia, Persia, Greece, Africa, Spain (I did have difficulty accessing some of the Spanish image browsers, so I don’t know whether I missed any Spanish zodiacs due to technical problems), or Asia. This is an ongoing project. If I see additional examples, I will update the map.

Political borders change. Other than the usual local skirmishes, there wasn’t much distinction between Bohemia and Germany during the long reign of Wenceslaus, HRE and King of Bohemia, so it’s difficult to argue that any of the crossbow-Sagittarius images found so far come from outside Germanic culture.

Crossbow-Sagittarius Details

In my opinion, the crossbow itself is not drawn well enough to determine its origin. The only truly distinctive part is the long trigger (and maybe the recurved ends of the lath) and it’s hard to know whether the length of the trigger is literal, or a convenient way to draw it so it connects to the hand. It might be literal (the illustrator took time to draw the laces on the boots, a faint goatee, and the lacy edge on the sleeves of the Gemini female), but it’s a very tiny drawing, and the illustrator has difficulty with detailed structures like hands and rotating connections between body joints, so… even though all the basic parts are there, one has to wonder whether the finer details are accurate.

When I tried to find tunics and hats that matched as closely as possible to the archer’s garb, I also searched worldwide. After almost three years of keeping my eyes open, I had very few examples.

Nothing outside of Europe bore a close resemblance, but I found six manuscripts with similar tunics in the Holy Roman Empire, two in France, and two in England (one of which was a series of tapestries rather than a manuscript). Thus, more than half of this small sample originated within germanic cultures. Most illustrations of medieval tunics differ from the VMS archer. Some are gathered, rather than pleated, many have high or wide collars rather than a simple collar. Many are wide at the wrist, or have split sleeves, whereas the VMS tunic is narrow at the wrist and wider at the elbows. If the VMS tunic is intended to represent a specific garment (which is difficult to determine), it’s not a common style.


I haven’t stopped looking for examples of zodiac symbols (I’ve added about 200 zodiac cycles to my database since the Sagittarius map was posted), but additional crossbow-Sagittarius symbols are exceedingly difficult to find. Maybe some will show up as more manuscripts are digitized. And as I keep repeating in blog after blog, if there is an exemplar for the VMS archer, it’s not necessarily a zodiac, it could be inspired by a hunting scene, a tournament, or a book on archery, or perhaps a zodiac with a longbow that was given a crossbow instead.

What I have observed, so far, is that manuscripts with crossbow-Sagittarius are primarily from the Holy Roman Empire between c. 1395 and c. 1496, and tunics that are similar originate in the HRE, France, and England, and range from c. 1400 to c. 1433.

By the way, I don’t have any germanic or central European theories. I have almost no theories about the VMS—I am still at the information-gathering stage—but I think it’s clear from what has been observed so far, that influences from within the Holy Roman Empire appear in the Voynich Manuscript.


J.K. Petersen

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

That Funny 4 Glyph

This article describes the odd glyph that resembles the number “4” (EVA-q). It’s odd because the “4” shape wasn’t prevalent in the late 1300s and early 1400s. It was a transitional period when many scribes were still using a character that looks like EVA-l to represent the number 4 and a few were still using Roman numerals.

That’s not to say that the VMS “4” is a numeral, I’m simply pointing out that this particular shape, with a sharp angled corner, wasn’t a common choice to represent a letter or a number when the VMS was created. Nevertheless, I believe it has its roots in Latin.

[Note: This is the more complete version of some images and commentary I posted on the forum a few months ago describing the glyph known as EVA-q. Even this is not the complete story, as there are statistics to go with the images, but it’s far too much information for one blog, so this article focuses on possible origins of the shape.}

How 4 Manifests in the VMS

The 4 glyph makes its first appearance on folio 1v, and from that point is frequently at the beginning of word-tokens and is followed by “o” about 90% of the time. The VMS is so regular in its construction, it would be tempting to think the other 10% are transcription errors, but the 4 has some interesting properties that suggest these are choices rather than errors. But first, here are some examples of the 4o combination, since it is most prevalent. Note that it is usually at the beginnings of Vwords.

But not always, a 4o can show up in the middle or at the end.

It’s often assumed that “4o” functions as a unit (and perhaps it does), but 4 is not always accompanied by “o”. The following examples show that 4 can be followed by other glyphs, such as a “c” shape, a “c” with a tail, a bench character, a benched gallows character, or the “cap” that represents missing letters in Latin. As further examples, the 4 can also be followed by a benched gallows (f103v) or an “i” (f106r), and 4o itself can be followed by “o”.

Both 4o and 4’o can stand alone—they don’t have to be attached to other Vwords. Note also, in the above and below examples, that a Latin abbreviation mark is sometimes associated with 4o. In the above example, the symbol is curved, but it is sometimes written as a straight macron-shape rather than a curved one, and occasionally there is a mysterious extra line connecting the two glyphs (might this be a hidden macron, or a combination with a different meaning?).

Whether two different abbreviation symbols have the same or different meanings depends on the scribe. Some were quite precise in the way they represented missing letters, others used whatever was convenient to the hand (or their imaginations).

The 4 is frequently followed by “o” (at the beginnings of Vwords), but they are not necessarily a combination—”o” sometimes precedes 4, or is sometimes combined with another 4o.

A “4” By Other Names

This glyph is often called “q” because some have interpreted “4o” as “qu” (it is also mapped to “q” on the EVA system but this keyboard position was not intended to impose meaning on the glyph). Sometimes the 4-shape has a soft connection rather than an angular one, making it look more like “q” than a “4”. Note that the pic on the right has a sharp-angled “4” on the same line as a soft “4”. Sometimes it’s indistinguishable from a “q” (assuming this is EVA-q and not EVA-y—sometimes it’s hard to tell).

There is more than one way to interpret the variation in the loop of the “4” glyph. Perhaps the soft-4 and the sharp-4 have different meanings, or perhaps they don’t, just as a “p” sometimes has a loop that connects and sometimes doesn’t, but means the same thing.

There is more than one character directly associated with 4. Sometimes the 4 is attached to a glyph that resembles the letter ell or the Latin “-is” abbreviation. This combination strongly resembles a mini-gallows character with a descender. The resemblance is so strong, you have to wonder if there’s a connection between EVA-q + “-is” and EVA-k, either in terms of glyph origins or meaning. Or is this a way to hide two consecutive gallows characters? It’s hard to test an uncommon combination—there aren’t enough instances to know if it behaves in the same way as 4o.

Common Patterns

When 4 is combined with o, it frequently precedes a gallows character and the gallows character frequently precedes a or c shapes. I’ve described this rule-like characteristic of Voynichese in past blogs.

Note that 4o is usually in front of the H-like gallows, not the P-like gallows. Note also that some of these are soft-4 and some sharp-4 and yet, at least superficially, they appear to behave in the same way.


If the VMS were Latin, then 4’o (4 and o with a straight or curved macron) can be interpreted in a number of ways—there’s no specific rule for how to expand the abbreviation symbol and there was quite a bit of variation in how scribes drew these squiggles, curves, and lines, but there were some general guidelines.

For example, a “squiggle” like the one found on the first page of the VMS is often interpreted as “er”, “ir”, “re” or “ri”, but even this symbol is sometimes used for other letters. Thus, in a medieval manuscript, one would look at neighboring words (in this case talis and est) to determine whether q’o represents “quero”, “quo”, “questo”, or “quomodo”.

You might also notice in this example of 15th-century cursive that the “q” shape isn’t round, it’s quite angular, almost like a VMS 4, but it was less frequently written this way.

Does This Mean the Voynich Manuscript is Latin?

Many have tried to translate it as such, it’s one of the most commonly claimed languages in VMS history, but most attempts range from shaky to bad, and sometimes they are really bad (I’ve only seen one that strikes me as a reasonable effort and that’s the one by Yulia May). So far, we only know that the glyphs are Latin, not that the language was Latin. Latin scribal conventions were common to many languages, including Greek, French, Spanish, German, Italian, English, Bohemian, and Scandinavian. The shapes by themselves do not reveal the language—they are adapted to represent common linguistic patterns in that language. Thus, a sign that means “-us” in Latin could potentially be used to represent “-en” or some other common ending in German.

In fact, we still use this system in English. The letter “w” with a line over it or a swooped-back tail is an abbreviation for “with” in the same way that an “a” with a swooped-back tail represents “aut” or “autem” in Latin.

So Where Did the 4 Shape Originate?

It’s possible that the VMS 4 is simply an invention, that no particular precedent inspired the shape. Or maybe the idea came from noticing quirks in the handwriting of certain scribes. As an example of how the “p” was sometimes written in medieval times, notice how the loop in this example is almost completely disconnected from the stem—it almost looks like 4o.

It’s tempting to think this might have twigged the idea for the VMS 4 glyph but, based on the way the abbreviations symbols are associated with 4o, I suspect the true inspiration might be another Latin abbreviation.

The 4 Glyph With and Without Ascenders

Note how the following VMS glyph resembles a 4 and appears to behave as a 4 when it precedes an o, but has an extra-long ascender-like stem. The VMS scribes were clearly familiar with Latin scribal conventions, but one still needs to consider whether this is scribal habit, a purely physical error, or a letter that started out as a gallows and got changed to 4. If it is a slip from Voynichese to regular Latin, does it reveal something about the glyph?

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough instances of the ascender4 to know, but we can take a look at other scripts to see if the shape was extant.

Historical Precedents

The VMS ascender4 reminded me of a sample of Visigothic text that includes a number of Latin abbreviations.

  • First note the macron in the shape of an old-style four (it looks like an x with a loop on top) near the end of line seven. It’s basically the same shape as EVA-l.
  • There is also a q with a long s-curve crossing the stem on the ninth line that can stand for various words including “quo”. A similar convention when applied to a p can turn it into “pre” or “pro” depending on whether the line is straight or curved.
  • There is a shape on the bottom that resembles a backwards gallows P that has various meanings depending on the time period. It can mean -us or -rum and is sometimes similar to a pilcrow except that it marks the end of a paragraph rather than the beginning.
  • There is an ampersand on line six near the beginning that can stand for “et” (as in Latin “and”) or for the two letters e and t if used as a ligature.

These are all common abbreviations. But the one of particular interest, circled in red, is one that matches the shape of the VMS ascender4. It can be attached to many different letters and is usually at the ends of words.

This character is comprised of a c-shape that loops over a long vertical stem. The loop is sometimes sharp, like a 4, or soft, like a q. The sharpness of the loop does not change the meaning of the symbol. Here it is primarily attached to “q” or “l” but it can be used in many different ways.

Typically the shape represents “-us” (which eventually evolved into a “9” shape or an apostrophe in later medieval manuscripts), but it can stand for other common endings that can be discerned by context, including “-uibus”. If it has a small extra loop on the top right, it can also mean “per” (which was later written by placing a line through the stem of a p rather than extending the top).

It’s possible this abbreviation inspired the shape for the VMS ascender4 and possibly also the 4.

Assuming there is meaning behind the VMS text, this symbol could potentially be expanded into a variety of letter patterns. In Latin it typically represents an ending, but it could just as easily be used as a prefix. Or, alternately, perhaps it does represent an ending and Voynichese is read right to left, even though it has been written left to right. Whenever I examine the text, I always try to scan it in both directions and not make too many assumptions about direction.


Taken individually, it would be difficult to determine the exact origin of a glyph, but when the VMS characters are studied as a whole, a strong pattern of Latin letters and abbreviations emerges. I haven’t had time to write up all the glyphs yet, I’m adding them as I can make time, but I have found abbreviation origins for almost all of the more peculiar-looking glyphs—and they trace back to Greco-Roman scribal conventions.

I don’t know if the ascender4 is based on the abbreviation-glyph illustrated above (or even if ascender4 and 4 are related), but it might be, so I thought it worth providing an example. If it is, then there’s still the challenge of figuring out whether the shape is simply a shape, a character (alpha or numeric), or something intended to be expanded into additional letters.


J.K. Petersen

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




Auction of Libri Manuscripts

There are some interesting entries in the Catalogue of the extraordinary collection of splendid manuscripts: chiefly upon vellum, in various languages of Europe & the East published by Davy in 1859.

It is an auction catalog compiled by or for M. Guglielmo Libri, who was parting with his enviable library through S. Leigh Sotheby & John Wilkinson, apparently due to ill health. His shelves contained many texts on philosophy and science in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages, as well as books of music and maps. The collection is notable for having a significant number of very old manuscripts (early medieval, Merovingian, and Carolingian).

Herbal Traditions

The following entry is for an herbal manuscript on vellum:

482 HERBARIO, CON FIGURE  4to SÆC. XV. ON PAPER (80 leaves)

Each leaf contains a rude drawing in colours of the Plant described in the opposite page. The work, which seems totally unknown, commences “Dacer el qualle te scrive li vertu de alchune herbe in lo so principio mette in parte de le vertu et proprieta de lartemissio, &c.” For the history of botany this manuscript is invaluable. Ancient manuscript Herbarj in Italian, with drawings, are extremely scarce; one only is mentioned by Marsand, and not a single one is to be found in the immenso Catalogue of the Medicean Library by Baudini.

The “Dacer el qualle…” introduction looks like Catalan to me but I am not familiar with all the dialects in that region. The bibliographic entry, as a whole, provides a peephole into what was known about herbal manuscripts (or, at least, what was known or claimed by this collector in the mid-19th century).

Embellished Characters

Something else of interest among his books is an example of littera elongata (similar to the VMS letters with ascenders). Legal documents often include embellished letters, but they are less common in manuscripts like this, a 12th-century book on astrolabe astronomy, with numerous tables written in Roman numerals. Note, in addition to the elongated characters, there is also a figure-8-style flourished character on the right:

I mentioned a while back on the forum, in connection with the 4 x 17 sequence in the VMS, that the Greek letter delta was sometimes written as a triangle without the baseline (similar to the letter alpha) and noticed there was an example of this variation in Libri’s copy of Pancrati Maryris Officium et Passio (catalog #760), which has text related to numbers added to a fore-leaf written in a pre-Gothic script (possibly close to the time of the creation of the manuscript, which is from the 10th century):

Costumes and Human Figures

The facsimile below is from one of the drawings in Libri’s 15th-century copy of the Hagada Schel Pesach. It provides an unusual glimpse of people in a medieval Hebrew manuscript.

There were prohibitions against illustrating humans, so one usually finds decorative embellishments, bodies with blank faces, or human-animal hybrids, rather than people (see example on the right from the Israel Museum).

In contrast, Libri’s copy is illustrated with naturalistic people (in the Spanish style, according to the auction listing):

The garments and the poses are of interest, and also the way the faces are drawn (particularly the women on the left), as they are somewhat reminiscent of the VMS nymphs, with their rounded facial features and indistinctly drawn jawlines.

Auction catalogs do not always make interesting reading material, but this one is an exception, not only for the quality of the collection, as a whole, but because there are facsimiles of some of the illustrations at the end, and longer descriptions than usual. If you are interested in perusing it, there is a copy here.

J.K. Petersen

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

Mi Casa No Es Siempre Su Casa

In a previous blog I wrote about the VMS cycles of life, the circles of nymphs that surround the zodiac symbols. This blog discusses why there are two zodiac symbols missing, why some of them are paired, and why some of the nymphs are clothed, something I was trying to work out when I wrote the original blog in April 2016.

Mi Casa

The Spaniards are legendary for their hospitality. Mi Casa Es Su Casa is a common expression and I certainly received cheerful greetings everywhere I traveled in Mexico some years ago, even though I was a foreigner who knew nothing of the language. The locals immediately started teaching me Spanish and never frowned or rolled their eyes if I used the wrong word or pronounced it badly. Instead, they cheered my efforts and clapped me on the back for even the smallest effort.

In astrology, things are a little different. My house isn’t necessarily your house. The stars are in different positions every time a child is born, and their relative positions are said to reflect one’s destiny.

Most people are familiar with the zodiac, the twelve symbols that make up a cycle of constellations, but ask them about astrological houses and the majority have no idea what you are talking about.

In a nutshell, in medieval astrology, the heavens were divided into twelve parts, working from east to west and the houses are organized into groups of three, each group having its own general character (masculine, feminine, choleric, melancholic, etc.).

The Twelve Houses

The twelve houses are not the same as the twelve zodiac symbols—even though they are related. In astrological forecasting (horoscopes), the influence of the constellations and planets on a person’s life is based their positions at a specific time and place and this will depend on where they appear in relation to each other in various houses. In other words, a planet can show up in more than one house or not at all, and each planet, in turn, was said to govern specific zodiac symbols. It’s more about influence and the precise position of a constellation in the sky than sequence. A constellation can cross the boundary from one house to the next and thus be attributed to two houses.

The following simulations show the sky above Rome, Italy, courtesy of I thought this might make it easier to illustrate how the constellations move through successive houses. The red line is the ecliptic, which makes it easier to find the familiar zodiac constellations:

Note how Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer are related to one another in a curve from top right to middle left. In the second illustration, two hours later, Aries has moved outside our viewport, Taurus has moved close to where Aries was before, but Gemini and Cancer are still somewhat in the middle, a little farther apart (you have to remember that the Earth is round and our drawing is flat). Now imagine a grid with the twelve houses superimposed on this view of the sky and you can imagine how some of the constellations may have crossed a house boundary, some might be in the same house, and some might be in transition from one to the next. Thus, the position of the constellations in the houses is not as rigidly geometric as a zodiac wheel might imply.

Medieval Houses in Brief

The houses are somewhat hierarchical and express cycles of human life. Astrologers have given specific significance to each house and those designations have evolved over the centuries, but here is how they were understood in the 11th to 15th centuries:

  • The first house governs one’s life, soul, and general physical form.
  • The second house relates to one’s household, property, business dealings, and relationships.
  • The third house is kinship. It refers to one’s siblings, neighbors, communication, and local travels.
  • The fourth house relates to one ancestors, assets, house and land, and local community.
  • The fifth house is pregnancy and procreation, children and events in which people come together to celebrate and enjoy one another’s company. In modern astrology, it also relates more broadly to enjoyment and recreation.
  • The sixth house refers to illness, calamity, and loss of property in the earlier manuscripts, and to living property, including servants, herd animals, and contractors in later manuscripts. In modern astrology, it relates to nurturance, health and well-being.
  • The seventh house relates to marriage, matters of intimate relationships, partnerships, quarrels, lawsuits, agreements, and disputes.
  • The eighth house relates to death and murder in earlier manuscripts, and to one’s estate, wills, inheritance, dowries, and other aspects of property in later manuscripts.
  • The ninth house relates to journeys and long voyages, and also to philosophy, visions, and matters of religion.
  • The tenth house relates to authority, including sultans, kings, dukes, judges, and generals, as well as one’s image and status in society. In modern astrology, it relates to status, career, and ambition.
  • The eleventh house is friendship, trust, praise, and fidelity.
  • The twelfth house relates to sorrow, enemies, debts, imprisonment, curses, secrets, and mischief. In modern astrology, it relates to clandestine activities, mysteries, privacy, and secrecy.

Medieval Horoscopes

In the middle ages, the twelve houses were typically represented as twelve geometric divisions within a square. This form was still in use in the 17th century but was gradually superseded by the wheel-and-spokes style of chart.  [Cambridge MS Peterhouse 75.I]

When casting a chart, the houses are typically represented as spokes on a wheel or as geometric divisions within a square (right).

The positions of the planets are then added to each segment based on the time and location of the chart (volvelles were used to help calculate the positions), along with any constellations that have influence over that segment at the time. Specific planets and constellations do not always show up in every house or with equal frequency.

Astrology was a lucrative business. Manuscripts were hard to come by and those who owned books on astronomy that included charts for computing star positions could sell their skills to the nobility.

In a natal chart cast for King Henry VI in the 15th century (shown below), the sequence begins with Gemini in the first house, and Cancer in the 2nd and 3rd. Sagittarius is noted in the 7th house and Capricorn in both the 8th and the 9th, followed by Aquarius and Pisces in the 10th and 11th.

In other words, in a medieval chart, the sequence doesn’t necessarily start with Aries, as is typical of zodiac cycles, doesn’t necessarily include all the constellations, and sometimes repeats a constellation if the sign is in transition from one house to the next.

This method of plotting the positions of planets and stars might explain the peculiar arrangement of the VMS zodiac sequence. Imagine if you expanded out the twelve houses into twelve separate drawings rather than trying to fit them all into one grid.

To put it more simply, the VMS zodiac sequence might not represent a zodiac cycle, it might be an illustration of twelve houses and the sign that has the most influence within that house at the time and location for which the chart was cast.

Medieval horoscopes are usually organized into geometric triangles within and surrounding a square. The name, date and time of birth (or of a specific event) are inserted into the central square. The houses usually begin in the triangle on the middle-left and follow twelve divisions counter-clockwise around the central square. This chart was drawn up for the birth of Henry VI (1421) in Cambridge, England. [Image credit: British Library, Eggerton 889]

Assigning Cycles to Houses

If the VMS zodiac folios represent an expanded natal (or other special-event) chart, it should be possible to identify the twelve houses by their subject matter.

The order of the houses doesn’t really matter. In less elaborate charts, they are identified by number, or simply by their position within a square as shown above. In the VMS, if the twelve wheels, taken together, represent a horoscope, it is a clever way to combine the meanings of the houses along with whichever constellation was visible in that house at that particular time—a two-in-one solution to schematic representation that makes it mnemonically easier to understand the houses.

Relating VMS Wheels to Traditional Houses

It’s not difficult to find commonalities between the VMS zodiac wheels and traditional descriptions of the astrological houses, but do they relate well if taken in sequence?

  1. First House—One’s life and physical form. The first VMS wheel appears to be a cycle of life, from birth to death as discussed here, so it matches quite well to the first house.
  2. Second House—Household and property. The second VMS wheel looks like  a cycle of pregnancy to me, from childhood through puberty, to pregnancy and post-partum, which doesn’t seem to fit the second house’s relation to material goods and property.
  3. Third House—Kinship. The third VMS wheel has always looked like a medieval family tree to me, and the traditional third house relates to kinship and relations, so maybe this one matches.
  4. Fourth House—Ancestors and assets. Once again we have something that resembles a family tree and shows fancy clothing (material goods and assets). This relates well to the theme of ancestors and assets.
  5. Fifth House—Pregnancy and Procreation. I would have expected the second VMS wheel to be here, the one that looks like puberty > pregnancy > post-partum. The sixth VMS wheel would also be appropriate in this slot, as it has men and women together with the man’s genitals clearly drawn. Perhaps the fifth VMS fits, as it shows what appears to be a cycle of menstruation followed by a fat stomach (pregnancy?) followed by a more slender waistline, and there are men in this wheel, but I’m not completely sure.
  6. Sixth House—Illness and Calamity. The sixth VMS wheel has a high proportion of men and relates to romance and sex in both the inner circle (with the courting Gemini figures) and the images that surround it, so I can’t see any relationship here between the VMS figures and illness or calamity. The sixth wheel would fit better in the fifth house.
  7. Seventh House—Marriage. It’s difficult to see what is going on in this wheel because many of the figures are male but some of the male-like figures appear to have breasts added in darker ink in a  style that is slightly different from the other female nymphs. It’s also difficult to know if this represents marriage when sex has already been shown in a couple of the previous wheels and there doesn’t appear to be as much sex going on here (some of my friends would probably joke that that is typical of marriage).
  8. Eighth House—Death and Murder. Death and murder is not a topic we frequently see in the VMS. Most of the nymphs are going about their business quite happily and the animals have paws instead of claws and never show any teeth, not even the one that vaguely resembles a lion. So, I’m not sure how to interpret the eighth VMS wheel other than to note that many of the nymphs appear pregnant.
  9. Ninth House—Journeys. What can I say, more nymphs, some of them heavily pregnant. It was mostly the men who went on long journeys… sailors, crusaders, soldiers, explorers, merchants, so it’s hard to know if this wheel relates at all to the ninth house.
  10. Tenth House—Authority. This is another wheel in which many of the figures look like they are male and where some of them look like they’ve had breasts added. A few have fancy head-dresses. It doesn’t overtly seem to represent authority unless it means medieval authority of men over women.
  11. Eleventh House—Friendship. The eleventh VMS wheel is a mixture of male and female nymphs (once again, some seem to have had breasts added) and there are four figures across the top with long hair, two with fancy headdresses. I can’t tell if this represents friendship. There’s nothing overtly indicating friendship other than the nymph top-right and the one middle-left (inner ring) who are touching the the nymphs beside them and this isn’t enough to know for sure.
  12. Twelfth House—Sorrow and enemies. Are these nymphs more sorrowful than others? Look at their mouths. Also, note that there are nymphs across the top of this one in the same manner as the previous wheel. If wheels 11 and 12 represent the yin and yang of friendship/trust and sorrow/enemies, they might conceivably be drawn in similar ways. Note how the nymph directly above the crossbowman has a line of red dots on her cheek, rather than the usual blotch of  blush. One can sometimes find dots on the other nymphs, but not usually in a vertical line. I’m not sure if this is a sneaky way to represent tears or just an anomaly, so I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.


Many of the VMS wheels can be related to medieval astrological houses, and several appear to be in the right sequence, but is the similarity strong enough to support the idea? Let’s go back to the horoscope and see if there’s anything that can help confirm or deny this impression…

Looking at Henry VI’s chart, shown above, we see Gemini listed in the first house, Cancer in the second and third, “Leon9” (Leo), in the fourth, and so on, with Pissz (Pisces) in the 11th, and “Taur9” (Taurus) in the twelfth.

Thus, in King Henry’s chart, Gemini is first, Cancer and Capricorn are each represented twice and Aries and Libra are missing. Why is this? Because a natal chart is drawn up for a specific time and place. It doesn’t have to start with Aries, it starts with the person’s “birth sign” or ascending constellation. At the same time, some of the constellations may be transitioning from one house to the next, and others may not be expressly visible.

This is very similar to the way the VMS zodiac symbols are represented. The cycle begins with Pisces, not with Aries, and Aries and Taurus are shown twice, while Capricorn and Aquarius are not shown at all.

If the VMS zodiac-symbol sequence is a natal horoscope (or one for a specific event, like the investiture of a king), whose is it? Does it relate to the creator of the VMS or perhaps to a patron, or to one of the prominent individuals of the time? Or is it a teaching tool, to give an example of how a prognostication chart might be organized? Is it perhaps an example of “judicial astrology” in which a legal judgment for some infraction is said to be written in the stars?

Here is a simulation of the sky above Rome, Italy, at midnight on January 1st, 1408. Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, and Virgo are clearly visible and the others are outside our current point of view:

If we want to see how the sky might have appeared after Pisces came into view (for the same location) we have to look later in the year—around the end of November or beginning of December:

This, of course, will change as you go farther north or south (and east or west). For example, if you go south to Cairo, Egypt, and look up at the same time and date as the previous example, Pisces will not yet be visible.


I’ve said this in the past, but wasn’t sure how to explain it in a blog before now, but I think the VMS sequence may be a horoscope, rather than a zodiac cycle or calendar. Many aspects that seem strange in the context of a zodiac cycle are not, if the entire sequence is viewed as the chart for a specific event. It would also be a credit to the VMS creator, if he or she found a unique way to pictorially combine the concepts of astrological houses with an “expanded” prognostication chart.

As a bonus, if the VMS zodiac series is a horoscope for a specific event (rather than a teaching example using arbitrary zodiacs) then, with a bit of computing power, it may be possible to calculate the specific times and places during which Pisces was rising, Aries and Taurus were on the boundary between houses, and Capricorn and Aquarius were not visible enough to be included.


Postscript [3 hours later]: I don’t know if I was clear enough about how I think the VMS wheels might relate to medieval horoscopes, such as the one cast for Henry VI, so I have expanded each of the sections of the Henry VI chart and added the influences of the houses, so they can be compared more easily to the VMS wheels. With the exception of the Gemini nymphs (which seems better matched to House 7 than House 6) and the 8th House (Death, Murder, Estate), the correspondence between the houses and the VMS figures is not too bad. You can click on the images to see them larger:



J.K. Petersen

© Copyright 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved.      Citations: J.K. Petersen, 12 July 2017,

Nosing Around Again

In March 2016, I posted details of the noses of the green and white rams in the Voynich Manuscript, to point out that they were drawn by different people (I am quite sure of this). The first is a more confident hand with a better sense of anatomy, the second is drawn with less dexterity and the person who drew it was less aware of the structure of the bones underneath the form.


There are other parts of the manuscript with slight differences in drawing styles, and there appear to be at least two painters and at least two scribes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that there might be more than one illustrator as well.

Quite unexpectedly, when looking at commonalities between some of the drawings in a Welsh book of law, and the Picatrix, I came across something in one of the illustrated versions of the Sachsenspiegel (The Saxon Mirror, a book of Saxon law) that reminded me of the VMS. It took me by surprise because the two different drawing styles are evident in rams and goats and makes one wonder whether the VMS rams might represent goats (we only assume from their position relative to the other roundels that they are probably rams, the drawings are not expert enough to know for sure).

Two Pairs of Noses

The Sachsenspiegel illustration includes human figures, a building, and various herd animals in pairs. If you look closely at the two goats with their heads raised, you will notice the one in front has a nose and neck that is more deftly and confidently drawn (marked with a red arrow). Note how the upper lip is more clearly modeled with a better sense of line and the underlying anatomy. In contrast, the other animals have rounded indistinct features with a much weaker sense of the structure under the skin. I instantly had the feeling of a teacher/apprentice or parent/child relationship. The teacher (or team leader) draws in some of the key points, to give an idea of what is desired and where things go, and the apprentice fills in the rest.

Could the Sachsenspiegel have been drawn by the same illustrators who created the VMS?

The more accomplished hand in the VMS is similar to the drawing style of the more accomplished hand in the Sachsenspiegel and the less accomplished is quite similar, as well, but it seems unlikely that they had any involvement in the VMS. Both the more and less accomplished hands in the Sachsenspiegel show stylistic differences from the two hands in the VMS. Note especially that the hind legs of the animals in the Sachsenspiegel point in the anatomically correct direction and the hooves look more or less like hooves.

In contrast, in the VMS, the hind legs of most of the animals are anatomically strange, with the middle joint almost nonexistent. The VMS hooves are also unusually round and include prominent dewlaps. These characteristics, especially the missing joint, are very difficult to find in other medieval drawings and are not characteristic of either hand in the Sachsenspiegel.

So, the drawing styles in the Sachsenspiegel and the VMS do not match, but perhaps they are similar in the sense of a mentor-student relationship.

If I had to guess, I would say that the more skilled illustrator drew many of the human figures and perhaps some of the buildings in the Sachsenspiegel—in other words, a substantial portion of the drawings. In the VMS, I get the opposite feeling… that most of it was drawn by the less expert illustrator, with only a few possible additions by someone with more skill (and perhaps some later additions by a third person with even less skill).


I keep hoping I’ll find other drawings by whoever drew the VMS, but haven’t been lucky so far, but maybe the Sachsenspiegel goats can explain the dots on the horns of the VMS animals.

In the Sachsenspiegel, the goats have bumps on the horns like the Ibex, a form of mountain goat. On the VMS, there is a series of dots that might indicate the more shallow ridges on the horns of most other species of goats and rams.

I’m not 100% certain the VMS white and green rams are actually sheep/rams, I never have been. I’ve always wondered why there are two, which is not typical of a zodiac sequence. It occurred to me that the white one might be Capricorn and the green one Aries, for example, but their position in sequence with the others seems to argue against this. I do have one idea as to why they might be out of sequence, however, which I’ll blog about as soon as I have time.

J.K. Petersen

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

Medieval Fashion VMS Style

As a follow-up to a previous blog, I have added tunic images to a map of the Holy Roman Empire as it was about 1400. They are not perfect matches to the tunics in the Voynich Manuscript, but they are close, and it gives a visual sense of how this kind of clothing was depicted in manuscripts and paintings, and where this style of dress may have been worn.

Hunting for Hats

Locating tunics similar to those in the VMS was a challenge, and finding hats similar to the one on the crossbowman just as hard. Those with a rounded turban-like base with a portion that hangs to the back usually have tails made of fox fur or sheepskin or several tails or folds of fabric. Some are too short, others are squared off at the bottom.

[Image credits: left BL 1231 f2r, middle Codex Sang 602, right Houghton Typ 127]

A long round tail like the one in the VMS is less common, but I was able to find one (below left). Note that the tunic is a little more fancy than the VMS, with much wider sleeves and a cape the covers the shoulders. There are a number of similar hats in Vatican Pal Lat 871 and the one shown right notably wears a simple tunic with a plain band at the collar and waist. Note also that it is enclosed in a circle of text:

[Image credits: left Morgan M.453, right Vatican Pal Lat 871]

These images [added July 11, 2017] are from a Swedish book of law. They illustrate tunics that are more elaborate than the VMS, with fancy collars and sleeves as were worn by the upper nobility. The tails on the hats are not as long as those of the VMS, but they are of interest because they are the correct general style, and resemble those in Pal Lat 871. [Image credit: Eriksson’s Landslag Cod. Ups. B.68]

I have only located one image so far that matches well to the VMS tunic that also shows a man with short legs and a similar hat, in Vatican Pal Lat 1806 (included at the bottom of the following map). The origin of this manuscript is thought to be Augsburg, Germany. It includes quite a few images of tunics similar to those in the VMS.

And now to the map (you can click on the image to see it larger):


In searching for these pleated tunics, I looked all over the world but was not able to find any that were closer than the ones illustrated above in the more distant countries. Not only were the clothing styles different, but the drawing styles, as well. I also rejected tunics that were a combination of vest and tunic as separate pieces of clothing and those with split sleeves.

We cannot know how accurate the VMS illustrator drew the clothing, but it’s noteworthy that the VMS Gemini twin shows the laces on the boots, a detail that is absent from most other drawings. The illustrator made an effort to record details despite the small size of the VMS, which is why it seemed worth the effort to look for costumes of a similar style.


                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

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

The Mystery of the Short-Legged Knight

The Ghâyat al-Hakîm fi’l-sihr (the “Picatrix”) is an occult manuscript brought to my attention on the forum and in a comment by K. Gheuens. I had noted some similarities between the VMS dragon-critter and some of the VMS men, with illustrations I saw in an Icelandic text. The Picatrix includes some provocative drawings of figures proportioned like the VMS archer.

The Picatrix

The Picatrix brings together older writings on proto-science, prayers, magic, and astrology.

It was written in Arabic around the 10th century and was translated into Spanish in the mid-13th century and, afterward, from Spanish into Latin (Benedek Lang, 2010). It is mentioned in two of the volumes by 16th-century polymath Johannes Heidenberg, commonly known as Trithemius, who is famous for his contributions to the history of cryptography. The Arabic Picatrix was apparently not known in the west until about 1920 (W. Hartner, Isis, V. 56, 1965).

The Picatrix (Biblioteka Jagiellonska MS 793) includes many interesting details. The origin of this version is debated, and the text breaks off abruptly in the second of four parts, but it is thought to have been created by a Polish scribe in Italy, or possibly in the region around Kraków. Its creation date is estimated to be in the mid-15th century, with a binding date around 1460 (B. Lang, Unlocked Books, 2010). Lang describes it as the only illustrated copy. Fortunately, the illustrations continue beyond the disrupted text.

For Voynich researchers, there are a number of interesting details. As examples, in the astrology section, there are two long-triggered crossbows held by figures with legs, as well as a number of figures holding ball-like forms. There are many wearing plain-necked tunics similar to the VMS archer’s, except that the sleeves are not as wide at the elbows.

Of particular interest is a panel of figures in a style that differs from the rest of the manuscript. K. Gheuens commented on the drawings when discussing proportions of the nymphs in October 2016.

For those who haven’t seen them, here are the figures, which strike me as very King Arthurish. There is a figure with an extravagant cape and a forked beard, in the middle a female, and possibly a knight on the right, oddly holding his sword by the blade. They are distinctly long in the waist and short in the legs, like the VMS archer:

I have a particular interest in these figures because I noticed a similarity between them and those in another manuscript, one that was created in Wales. The history of the Picatrix manuscripts does not include any mention of Wales, and a search of the Web did not yield any comments connecting the Picatrix figures and those in this Welsh manuscript, so this may be the first time the connection has been noted.

Leges Hywel Dda

The Leges Hywel Dda is a book of Welsh law. John Dee wrote comments on the version that is now Leges Walliae, Oxford, Merton College MS 323. The copy that includes the illustrations that follow is the Leges Hywel Dda, available from the National Library of Wales.

The figures in the Picatrix and the Leges Hywel Dda are clearly not drawn by the same person and it’s not common for a book on the occult to share similarities with a book of law, but there are details that suggest that one illustrator may have seen the works of the other, or that the illustrators might have some kinship in terms of blood, culture, or education.

First, a note about the differences… the Picatrix drawings are scratchy, with tentative strokes, stubby chins, and bodies all facing front, the Hywel Dda are drawn with a cleaner line, faces turned sideways, distinct necks and chins, but…

note the similarity in dress and proportions of the figure on the right. He is wearing a red and white tunic and is holding his sword or long knife by the blade in the Picatrix and almost by the blade in the Hywel Dda. The figure on the right in the Hywel Dda Picatrix appears to have been explicitly drawn with legs that are shorter than the figures on the left.

Other similarities include the wide, very rounded shoulders, the lack of ears, and the concave flare of the tunic from waist to hem. In both the tunic billows out above the waist, although in one it hangs over the edge of the belt. In both cases, the man with the blade is standing on the following text, with his foot touching the letters:

The National Library of Wales has this to say about its early provenance of the Leges Hywel Dda:

“It is known that, by the beginning of the 14th century, the manuscript was at St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury. The evidence for this comes from one of two pastedowns preserved at the end of the volume. These are all that remain of the original ‘old oak boards binding’ seen by J. Gwenogvryn Evans at the end of the 19th century, when it was still at Peniarth, Merionethshire. One of these bears the press-mark of the library of St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and the name of the donor, now partly illegible but interpretable as that of William Byholte (fl. 1292-1318), prior of the abbey. It is also thought that this was the copy of the Welsh laws consulted by John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-94, when he sent his letter to Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, denouncing the prince’s morals and those of the Welsh, and in which he makes two references to the Laws of Hywel Dda.”

Thus, we find that this edition of the Leges Hywel Dda predates the illustrated edition of the Picatrix by at least 150 years, which brings up some questions:

  • Did the illustrator of the unusual panel of illustrations in the Picatrix see this specific copy of the Leges Hywel Dda? It seems unlikely that a book of Welsh law would go far beyond the boundaries of Wales, but the scholars themselves were quite nomadic, often studying at several universities, and taking patronage and appointments in a variety of courts, some quite distant from their homelands. It’s also noteworthy that the illustrated copy is in Latin, not Welsh, a language known by most scholars of the time. There is also a half century, from c. 1500 to c. 1550 in which the whereabouts of the Leges Hywel Dda is not known, or
  • Is there an earlier exemplar that includes a figure with short legs, dressed in a bicolor tunic, clutching a knife or sword in a less-than-optimum way?

Searching for the Short-Legged Knight

The character of Turold in the Bayeux Tapestry might serve as an exemplar for a short-statured character. He is often called a dwarf, but Turold, while small, is of relatively normal proportions compared to the VMS archer and the Leges Hywel Dda figure. Turold’s clothing isn’t similar either. He wears long wide pants and a cowl and has a distinctively long goatee.

I think we can rule out Turold as the inspiration for the short-legged figures.

The character of Lancelot, from the Arthurian Legends, is often shown in red and white garb, but I’ve never seen him with unusually short legs.

Hunting for an exemplar can be a time-consuming and exasperating task. Sometimes one has to move on and hope that one finds clues along the way, or that someone else comes across a possible precedence.


I don’t have any explanations for the short-legged character, other than a few rough ideas, but since he sometimes appears in combination with long-legged figures, the proportions appear deliberate in at least some manuscripts. I can’t help wondering if he is based on a legendary character.

I was intrigued by details in drawings that might indicate a connection between a central European book of magic and a Welsh book of law.

One thing I’d like to mention in closing is that the figure clutching the blade of the long knife in the Picatrix struck me as odd in the same way as the VMS crayfish with legs coming out of its tail—an anatomical oddity I’ve never seen in another lobster/crayfish drawing. One can’t directly equate an incautious knight with a leg-challenged crustacean, but it’s a reminder that some people have a slightly different perception of the world and perhaps the VMS illustrator was one of them.

Postscript (5 hours later):

I neglected to include this in my original post. It’s a Danish almanac, written in Latin, from the early 16th century. The lower figure in particular is similar in pose and features  to the Picatrix illustrations (in the sense of having round shoulders, a front-on viewpoint, two-toned tunic, and short legs), but more similar to the Welsh manuscript in the sense of having fewer, more assured strokes of the pen. The figure in the all-red tunic it is not quite as clearly short-legged—note how the head is smaller in proportion to the body than the other—but still leans toward having shorter legs. There are several centuries separating these from the Welsh law book, so it’s difficult to know if there is any connection, but the images relate well to the subject of costumes and body proportions:


J.K. Petersen

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

The Camel’s Hump

It’s difficult to make sense of the little critter by the plant on folio 25v. It has elements of a camel, a giraffe, and the dragons that inhabit the pages of medieval manuscripts. What is it and what is it doing? It looks like it’s nibbling on the leaf but it’s also been suggested that it might be smelling the leaf.

Nothing about it is entirely clear. Is that a mane on its neck? Is the arm-like appendage on the back a tail? Are the odd extra lines near the tail an attempt at drawing wings? Is the texture on the back a shell? a hump? or simply a different texture?

The entire drawing has a tentative not-sure-how-to-draw-it feeling.

If the hump is intended to be a shell, then perhaps the critter is a tarask, a mythical creature tamed by St. Margaret. Or maybe it’s a generic dragon, or some roughly-drawn animal with a linguistic connection to the plant.

The Tarask tamed by St. Margaret has been drawn in many forms, from a six-legged turtle-monster to a two-legged basilisk-like dragon. [BL Additional 21926]

I considered many explanations for the hump but it never occurred to me, until I saw this image on the right, that the differently textured back might be a cushion, like those on dragon thrones, chairs used by nobility that were embellished with sculpted lions or dragons. The cushions were made of natural materials: leathers, furs, sometimes sheepskin pelts, bumpy like the critter’s back. I don’t think this is the most likely explanation for a critter on a plant page, but I don’t like to rule out possibilities for questions that haven’t yet been answered.

The tail of the critter is odd too, it’s almost like an extra leg or arm, with finger- or paw-like appendages that aren’t quite as flower-like as most dragons with “flower tails”. They are rounder and less defined. The manuscript with the dragon throne has a number of two-legged creatures, and flower embellishments that have this rounded aspect (which may be coincidental, but I decided to include them for those who are interested):

Whatever the creature is, it’s not hard to find various dragon-like critters that are similar, with ears, two legs, and something like a tail, but is it possible to connect them to a manuscript that is similar to the VMS in other ways?

The Short-Legged Men

The proportions of the figures in Pal. Germ 794 (second left) are common to many manuscripts. Those in the Ebersberg manuscript (left) are a little longer in the legs than usual. The shortened legs and larger heads of the VMS figures shown on the right are somewhat uncommon. Note the similarity in the woodsman’s hat and tunic to that of the VMS archer.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that some of the male figures in the VMS have short legs in proportion to their bodies. This is especially apparent in the images of Gemini and Sagittarius and is not a common way to draw them. When I searched for medieval drawings of short-legged men, I found a number of examples, but they were definitely in the minority. The VMS females also have fairly large heads, but their legs aren’t shortened quite as much as the men.

Perhaps the men are drawn this way because the space within the circles is constrained, which makes it difficult to fit the legs, but that wouldn’t explain why the heads are quite large. If the VMS illustrator was male, was he drawing men in proportions similar to his own?

What about the figures in the manuscript with the dragon throne shown above?

There aren’t many human figures who are standing—the imagery is mainly dragons, embellishments, and seated figures—but there is an archer whose proportions are similar to those of the VMS men.

Those Oddball Grain-Trees

On folio 86v there is an image of a bird, perched on the ground or in a nest at the top of a tor with three odd tree-like structures bending over it like grain blowing in the wind.  Medieval trees were drawn in strange and imaginative ways, but it’s hard to find parallels to tree-like plants that look like grain. Even so, this one caught my eye in the manuscript with the dragon-throne. It’s not a direct parallel, but it did include some similar elements. There are birds and, to the right, three botanical embellishments that have the proportions of trees, with narrow leaves that suggest something smaller.


Most of the examples above (except for St. Margaret and the panel of proportions) are from a 14th-century Icelandic miscellany written in old Norwegian (AM 226). The content and the images are not directly comparable to the VMS, but in overall tone and style, there is something about them that makes one want to look twice. The shapes of the dragons, the rounded, simple flower-tail embellishments, the proportions of the archer, and the marginal drawing with the birds are not uncommon or hard to find when taken individually, but it’s difficult to find all these elements together in one volume.

Whether it shares a cultural kinship with the VMS or it’s a coincidence, I don’t know, but I thought it interesting enough to note.


                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen

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

The Site of the Cross

On December 14, 2016, Searcher, on the forum, suggested that the cross-shaped item in the hand of a nymph on folio 79v might be a cross-staff. This was an intriguing idea, especially considering the way in which the instrument is held and the fact that there is another nymph holding something that looks like calipers, so I looked up some of the history of cross-staffs to see if there might be support for the idea.

The cross-staff is an ancient instrument which may trace back as far as the Chaldeans, who are also connected to early forms of astrology. In the Renaissance, it was used in navigation, but its original purpose was to study and measure distances related to the sun and stars. The staff provided a way to guide the eye and was the forerunner to instruments such as the quadrant and sextant.


In its simplest form, the cross-staff consists of a rod with a smaller crossbar mounted at 90 degrees to the longer bar. The smaller bar is known as a “vane” or “transom”.

A cross-staff was held to the eye so the person using it could site along a line to the sun and compare this with the distance to the horizon. The vane was adjusted back and forth until both could be brought into view at the same time. Refinements included various means to move the crossbar, and markings on the instrument, in degrees and minutes, to help determine distance. Sometimes multiple vanes were added, but the basic instrument needed only one.

The cross-staff was sometimes known as Jacob’s staff. This may be based on the ladder Jacob envisioned stretching in a line from Earth to heaven. It has also been suggested that the name comes from one of the medieval names for the constellation we know as Orion, which has a short “belt” of stars resembling the vane on a cross-staff.

In French, it was called arbalete, rayon astronomique, and baton de Jacob, or arbalestrille for the marine version (the fore-staff). In Portguese, balestilha. In Latin, radius astronomicus, and in German, Jacobs-Stab or Stab und Kreuz, or just Kreuz.

Three modes for using the cross-staff for siting and measuring are illustrated in Gemmae Frisii de radio astronomico et geometrico liber (Frisius, et al, Cavellat, 1557).

The earliest reference to the cross-staff, so far identified, is from 11th-century China. In Europe, the earliest references to modern use of the instrument are from Provençe in the 14th century. Of particular interest is a reference by Gersonides, a Jewish scholar who believed in astrology, who describes the instrument and attributes its uses not only to measuring distances between celestial bodies, but also their diameters.

In this image, Moslem astronomers discuss the use of the astrolabe (upper right) and another uses a double sighting rod (left) while an early form of quadrant sits next to him on the table. The Q’uran (written in the 7th century) includes a passage about Allah/God having set out the stars to help navigation at night, thus inspiring an interest in the practical application of astronomy. [Image courtesy of the University of North Florida]

By the 19th century, a modified cross-staff with a round or square head, and sometimes a quadrant of slits, was used in surveying, in combination with a rod or chain and a number of staves. It was useful for measuring fields, platting lands, and certain forms of cartography.

The Cross-Staff for Navigation

Yemeni Astrolabe, 1291 [Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Edward C. Moore Collection]

Of particular interest to Voynich researchers is the history of the cross-staff for navigation on water. In marine navigation, it was known as a fore-staff, so-called because the person using it faced the direction being observed, in contrast with the back-staff which was used with one’s back turned. Adjustments had to be made for how high the person was above the water.

It may seem surprising, but historians claim that the cross-staff was not used for marine navigation until fairly late in the middle ages.

In the Mariner’s Museum, they have this to say about the history of the cross-staff:

“…sailors did not use it until the early 1500s; the first recorded date was 1514. As with other early navigation instruments, the first use for the Cross-Staff was in astrology, in measuring the altitude of stars to help forecast the future.”

William Wales notes, in 1744, that John Werner, of Nuremburg, recommended the use of the cross-staff as a marine instrument for determining longitude, by observing the distance between the moon and stars, in a book printed in 1514 (W. Wales, 1777), which is likely the same reference noted by the Mariner’s Museum.

In Motorboating (July, 1947), there is a practical description of the difficulties of using an instrument like a cross-staff on the sea:

“The pitching, rolling deck of a ship prevented general adaptation of the astrolabe. The cross-staff required the observer not only to sight directly on the blazing sun but also to look at two things simultaneously: the sun and the horizon. In the middle and high latitudes this latter job was not too difficult. In the low latitudes traversed by so many ships of the early days, it was nearly a physical impossibility to sight on a noon-day sun nearly overhead and a horizon dead ahead. These disadvantages led John Davis to invent, in 1590, his Back-Staff or Sea-Quadrant.”

Andrew MacKay, in 1793, sheds further light on why the cross-staff was not the instrument of choice for determining distance on water in the early days:

“The method of reckoning the latitude in degrees and minutes being introduced, instruments for observing altitudes were divided accordingly.– The Astrolabe, (a circular ring, having a moveable index and fights,) was applied to observe altitudes at sea. It was, however, supplanted by the Cross Staff, and that again by the Quadrants of Davis and Hadley, in succession.”

Thus, he suggests that use of the astrolabe preceded the cross-staff for marine purposes, with the quadrant eventually succeeding it.

On the left is a sighting rod (without crossbar), to the right, an astrolabe, constructed of overlapping, rotating rings—an instrument commonly used in navigation. Note the cloud band and the pattern in the background. [British Library, Bodley Digby 46, late 1300s]


If the object in the hand of the nymph on folio 79v is a cross-staff, then it’s unlikely that it’s intended as a marine navigation instrument—the astrolabe and other means were more commonly used for this purpose before the 16th century. In the early 15th century, the cross-staff was primarily used for land navigation, architectural measurement, and astrology.

Unfortunately, the other images on the page, below the cross-wielding nymph, add little to our understanding of the cross-shaped object unless, perhaps, the Jacob’s Ladder story is being used in a metaphorical way and the presence of a nebuly-like “umbrella” over the nymph and her crow’s-next viewpoint are pointing to a path to heaven, a concept particularly prevalent in Christian iconography, but common to many cultures.

Or perhaps it’s the astrological significance of the cross-staff that is alluded to in the Voynich manuscript. If the various nymphs are personifications of constellations, as suggested by Koen Gheuens, it would not be out of place to find a cross-staff aimed at the stars or a possible connection with Jacob’s rod, which was traditionally associated with Orion’s belt.


J.K. Petersen

Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved