Category Archives: Medieval Iconography

The Catch to the Crossbow

I’ve written several posts on the VMS bowman and didn’t think there was more to say about his bow, but after looking at hundreds of crossbows, I feel more strongly than ever that the origin of the Sagittarius bow might remain a mystery until the text is deciphered.

It’s difficult to find crossbows that originated before 1500. They’re made of natural materials that wear out or easily perish in fires. There are a few rare examples that are claimed to be from the late 15th century, but even those dates are speculative—a home-crafted bow from the 16th century can look very much like a typical 14th-century bow.

Crossbow artisans kept their trade secrets close to the vest, so most of what we know about crossbows was passed down by scribes and illustrators. Fortunately, a few descriptions are relatively detailed. Most of them, however, are not, including the drawing of a crossbow in the Voynich Manuscript.

To recap, here is a picture the VMS crossbow that was previously posted to point out its main features. The shape of the stock-end is speculative, since it’s hidden by his hand.

In terms of locating the origin or time-period of the bow, there are four features of particular interest:

  • the rounded stirrup,
  • the long trigger,
  • the extra curve at the tips of the lath (also called a prod), and
  • the position of the nut or tumbler, also known as the catch (in a small, rough drawing it’s impossible to determine the style of catch).

Details of Interest

Lugs and Lath Tips

Most stocks in the Middle Ages were straight or narrowed. After the Renaissance, some evolved into gun-stocks like those on a rifle. Later bows were fitted with lugs for attaching a crank (these are usually positioned a couple of inches behind the nut), a feature that was less common in the 15th century, but quite prevalent by the 17th century.

The VMS drawing is not detailed enough to show the style of cord, whether there were lugs, or how the stirrup was bound to the lath. It is interesting, however, that so much care and attention was given to the graceful curving tips at the end of the lath, a feature that was not common to crossbows (longbows didn’t always have long tips either). Medieval laths were usually wood, or composite materials such as wood and bone, with blunt tips, as in these examples:

Sometimes when the cord is quite thick it gives the appearance of longer tips (as in the center image that follows), but the VMS drawing doesn’t look like an extended cord—it looks like the tips of the lath extend beyond the wound cord.

So what could account for the relatively sharp lath-tips in the VMS crossbow?

Could the illustrator have combined features of the longbow and crossbow? Or might the lath have been made of steel (as in the two images to the right above), a material that was gradually introduced in the 12th century, but did not become widespread until the late 15th or early 16th century? Steel prods were narrower than composite, sometimes with longer tips.

Or maybe the answer is more complicated… the lath in the following picture looks like it could be composite materials (it is moderately thick), but the tips are quite narrow and very hooked, as though they were reinforced and extended by metal caps. I’m not aware of any historic prods with caps, and the glue would have to be very strong to hold against the pull of a loaded cord, so I looked for another explanation. Perhaps the bow in the picture was wrapped in a material like snakeskin, with the tips left unwrapped… but that still doesn’t account for the extra curve in the tips—these kinds of curves are not easily incorporated into wood or composite bows, and the tips become fragile if sharply tapered—a broken tip could lead to death on the battlefield or the loss of a week’s food on a hunting trip.

If the tips were “caps” rather than a protruding unwrapped part, these drawings from 1459 (Thott.290.2º) might illustrate a part of crossbow history that isn’t well documented. Either way, even if the curve is not literal, but simply an artistic embellishment, drawings like the VMS, with an extra curl in the tips, are definitely in the minority. I found very few compared to bows with blunt tips or only a slight curve. Here are some drawn with an extra curve:

Note how the laths in the Thott illustration above have darkened tips.

The following examples are the same crane-hunting scene from the Tacuinum Santitatus tradition, drawn by different illustrators almost a century apart. Except for drawing style, the later version is a fairly faithful reproduction of the storyline, but notice how the illustrator took time to change some of the details, like the sleeves of the tunic, and the color and shape of the crossbow tips:

The earliest example I could find of a relatively clear crossbow with slender long tips was in an ecclesiastical manuscript from the 11th century (BNF Latin 12302), probably from France. It doesn’t have a stirrup, however, and the trigger is almost vertical, in contrast to the mostly horizontal triggers of later crossbows:

I did locate a photo of a long-triggered steel bow from Portugal with slender tips curved a little more than average, from the late 1500s, but the stock extends a couple of inches beyond the lath, and there was no stirrup attached.

Coloration in Drawings of Medieval Crossbows

By the 15th century crossbow laths with dark tips are not uncommon. Here are examples of a battle bow from BNF Français 9342 and a hunting bow from Bodley 264, with darker tips. In these drawings, it looks like the bow might be wrapped (possibly with snakeskin) and the tips left unwrapped, as opposed to the tips being capped:

The VMS drawing doesn’t have dark tips but it does have a rounded stirrup, like the bow on the right.


The rounded stirrup, the style in the VMS drawing, appears to be more common than squared-off stirrups:

When comparing the VMS bow to historic crossbows, keep in mind that they were functional items, subject to wear-and-tear, and the stirrup bindings and cords were replaced as they wore out. Thus, the stirrup itself may also have been replaced, especially if the original was lost due to disintegrated bindings, which were usually leather or cord. The nut would sometimes also break and be replaced with a slightly different style.

By the late 16th and 17th centuries, many crossbows, especially those for the nobility, showed significant artistry, with ivory, bone, laminate, and incised decorations along the full length of the stock. In the 17th century, pompoms (rounded tassels) were added to some of the laths. This remarkable bow from Dresden, Germany, has elaborately carved bear-hunting scenes, a tooled lath tip, and pom-poms. It dates to about the late 17th century or early 18th century (it has similar characteristics to a 1663 bow in The Met collection).

The VMS drawing shows no signs of decoration (possibly because it is so small), but judging by other medieval drawings, embellishments were less common in the 15th century than later.

And now to the important part… a little detail that is scarcely a blot on the drawing of the VMS stock.


The catch to this whole VMS crossbow identification effort, is, well… the catch, the nut, the little protruding knob that secures the power of the spanned cord, like a capacitor, until the bowman releases its energy.

The catch is approximately a third of the way down the stock from the stirrup, depending on the length and style of bow. The trigger “catches” on the underside of the nut so that pulling the trigger moves it just enough for the catch to rotate freely and ZING! the cord is freed and ejects the bolt. Here are some examples of the nut/catch. Notice it is clawlike, to grip the cord securely:

Catches are pretty much alike… or so it seems if you look only at the shape and ignore the mechanics. There’s quite a bit of variation in the distance of the catch from the trigger, and how they connect inside the stock, but there are some things that are necessary for the trigger to work… And this is the important detail that throws all VMS identification efforts out the window… the VMS catch is like the legs on the lobster’s tail in the zodiac roundels, or like the joints in the back legs of the ruminants—it’s in the wrong place.

I looked at the catches of almost 200 historic crossbows, and all of them were located above or slightly ahead of where the trigger attaches to the stock (usually about 1/2″ to 2″, up to a maximum of about 3″). If you look at the VMS drawing again, you’ll see that the catch is about 2″ behind the trigger. This never happens, as far as I can determine. The portion of the trigger inside the stock rotates in a specific way when you squeeze it and the nut has to sit at the right junction to efficiently respond to this movement.


I would love to say I found bows that closely resemble the VMS bow, and I did have some success, but if this important detail of the crossbow-catch is wrong, maybe others are too.

Maybe the tips are artistic, maybe the trigger is lengthened to make it look like it’s touching his hand, not because it’s long, maybe the attachment point of the trigger was moved up to show that it is long… It’s possible the position of the catch is the only thing that’s off, but there’s no way to be sure. We have to look to other factors, like the style of the bowman’s tunic (which is echoed quite well in the hunting scenes of Gaston Phoebus, right) and aspects of the manuscript that seem mostly but not-quite-right.

So, I’ve put crossbow identification on the table for now, but I’ll keep my eyes open for other imagery that might help us understand this roundel, and if I find some, I’ll post it.

J.K. Petersen

© 2017 J.K. Petersen, All Rights Reserved

Oceans of Starry Notions

Research is the systematic search for knowledge. Editorializing is presenting one’s opinions and interpretations, sometimes with examples specifically chosen to prove one’s point. When it comes to the Voynich Manuscript, it’s probably best to emphasize the former, since very little is actually known about the VMS.

Spirals and whorls were discussed recently on the forum and, on October 15, 2017, D.N. O’Donovan posted a brief blog comprising a montage of seven images with the Latinesque title: Floribus campis Coeli. There is no commentary and I have only read a few of O’Donovan’s blogs, so I don’t know the background on these images, but one of the captions reads,

“As noted in the first of my posts mentioning this whorl motif in Beinecke MS 408, one finds early examples in Ephesus, Antioch and Rhodes but it reached the South-western Mediterranean no later than the 7thC AD.”

I haven’t made a systematic study of spirals or whorls, I’ve mostly concentrated on the Voynich Manuscript text and plants, but I have gathered a few images along the way.

Spiral reliefs in wave and garland patterns decorate the Temple of Tarxien on the island of Malta [image courtesy of Wikipedia].

It’s my understanding that spiral and whorled imagery date back at least to the Maltans, before 2,500 BCE, which is considerably earlier than the 7th century CE mentioned in O’Donovan’s caption, and I would consider Malta, which had close ties to the Iberian Peninsula, to be sufficiently connected to the SW Mediterranean to be relevant to this discussion.

Megalithic courtyards, as the Maltan Temple of Tarxien, are well-decorated in wave- and plant-like spirals, and the Romans who occupied Malta from the 3rd century BCE, continued the tradition in their mosaics.

Next to a picture of the “Mosaic Ephesus”, which is a spiral with a sawtooth design, O’Donovan adds,

“In illustrating this mosaic, I was showing the antiquity of spiral armed forms – here it represents ‘all the world under the sun’. In other cases it might represent the sun itself. In one image from the Vms, it represents the rhumbs as I’ve explained.”

Spiral garland patterns carved into spoglia. [Image courtesy of Rag Rose’s blog.]

The mosaic mentioned by O’Donovan is on the Curetes walkway in Ephesus, Turkey, and is accompanied by many other mosaics and carvings with circular and feather-like overlapping designs, as well as natural images of dolphins, ducks, doves, dogs, deer, lions, and floral garlands.

Ionic columns in the area also include spiral motifs, as do decorative edges. Since many of the spiral carvings are integrated with floral garlands, it appears that most of the spiral and whorled designs in this complex were inspired by flora and fauna rather than celestial objects.

For reference, here are spiral images from the Voynich Manuscript:

The figure on the left fills most of the page and spirals in a clockwise direction, with text filling the spokes. There is an Armenian astrological diagram that is similar in construction (circles, spokes, and text associated with the spokes) but it does not include the T-O map or the cloudband-like scallops or star-shapes in the central portion. [Edit: 10/26/17 I forgot to mention when I posted this that the Armenian sun-cross was a prevalent symbol, usually consisting of a spiral sun, or a sun-symbol surrounding a cross. You can see examples on Google search.]
The spiral on the right is much smaller, comprising only the center of the page, and radiates in four directions toward other imagery. If you look closely, you’ll see that it originally had nine lines to mark the edges of the spiral arms, which doesn’t bear any relation to the four radiating lines or the six-pointed star, and doesn’t work well if you are trying to paint each section in alternate colors, so the painter fudged the colors on the bottom, with a thin stroke of yellow to separate two blue sections that ended up next to each other.

The Way-Back History on Whorls

Ancient spirals and whorls are found throughout the world, especially in the Americas, Buddhist Asia, Malta, Greece, Turkey, Africa, Ireland, and Scandinavia.

One of the easier ways to make attractive patterns from a piece of wire is to wrap it in a spiral—no exemplars needed—but there are also spirals in the ancient and medieval world that appear to be talismans, or to embody a more specific religious significance. Some patterns are purely decorative, or based on nature (e.g., a curled snake) rather than on religious symbology. One has to study the culture to interpret them correctly.

Studies of ancient imagery are often based on guesswork about the superstitious and spiritual beliefs of cultures for which we have limited information, but some spirals have been found in megalithic sites that are oriented toward the solstices or equinoxes and thus are thought to represent the sun.

Brittle star fossil found in Mt. El Kissan, southern Morocco {Image courtesy of Fire & Ice].

The picture on the right might look like a petroglyph drawn by a sun-worshipping culture, but it’s actually a brittle-star fossil (Ordovicia) from Morocco.

In the Mediterranean, the patterns of nature were dear to the hearts of ancient people. Even today, the postage stamps of Malta show a rich appreciation of nature’s beauty.

If you look at star shapes and spiral motifs on ancient vases and bowls, you will see many designs inspired by starfish, sun stars (an animal that resembles the starfish), sea urchins, and anemones. Even the little lines and colors in the centers of starfish and sea urchins can be found in Greek decorative arts and Roman mosaics (more on this below).

The Mycenaeans took most of their inspiration from marine life, rather than from the world above them. That’s not to say they were indifferent to the sky… as sea-people, stars were very important to them for navigation, but iconographic analysis has to acknowledge their strong bond to the sea.

Double Entendre

Double meanings are possible in imagery that has multiple interpretations. The stars at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, for example, are numerous and golden against a blue background, so one immediately thinks of stars, but if you look closely at the way they are drawn, and consider the fact that water is also frequently painted blue, then you have to acknowledge that they may be inspired by starfish, or perhaps be a simultaneous reference to “the stars above and the stars below” [click the pic to see it larger].

Cultural Exchange

Surprisingly similar quad-spirals have been found on ancient ornaments in both Greece and Sweden (right).

While Scandinavia and the Mediterranean seem far from one another, there was trade between the Norse and early inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula.

The Basques may have served as a communications conduit between the north and the Mediterranean. They were expert mariners and whalers, equal to the Vikings in their seafaring prowess, and crossed paths with the Vikings at stopping points along the coasts of Norway and Iceland often enough that they learned some Icelandic.

The spiral is also a megalithic motif in pre-Celtic Ireland, and the Vikings apparently coerced or kidnapped Hibernian women on their way to Iceland, a fact that is reflected in the DNA of the Icelandic people. Thus, the women of Ireland may have contributed decorative arts to Viking culture.

Spirals are also found in the Canary Islands, whose “discovery” and plunder occurred prior to the creation of the Voynich Manuscript.

Thus, the similarity between northern and southern spirals may not be coincidental.

The beautiful spiral on the right bears a strong resemblance to some of the medieval manuscript illustrations containing sun spirals. It is dated to c. 300 CE from Birkenes in southeastern Norway. Some think the design may have originated in Asia, but there are similar spirals (with protrusions on the edges of the main arms) from Sanda, in Gotland, Sweden (c. 400 to 600 CE) and the Gotland picture stones, in turn, resemble Mediterranean designs.

Thus, one sees a chain of communication between the Norse, the Hibernians, and the Mediterraneans, possibly via the Iberian Peninsula, and a pattern of spirals in megalithic and classical art that may be rooted in communication rather than coincidence.

Spirals in Manuscripts

Rayed faces and suns are common to manuscripts from many cultures (they are frequently found in Arabic and Latin manuscripts, as well as the VMS). Spirals are more difficult to find, however, and many of them are more religious than astronomical, but there are some  provocative spirals and whorls in the Rothschild Canticles (MS 404, c. 1300) held at the Beinecke Library, that are interesting to examine:

The image on the left, featuring a central spiral with long rays is surrounded by four figures, each with arms outstretched, emerging from cloud bands. The VMS includes a number of images with four figures, some of them with their lower bodies deep in textured patterns. The image on the right also features four figures in the corners, two apparently celestial, the other two terrestrial, and there are round spirals between the rays of the inner whorl.
The central image has a whorl with long starfish-like arms around a central circle with cloudband-shapes radiating in two directions (and rimming the top and bottom edges of the frame). At the base is a face peering out from a crescent moon.
A further image (not pictured) includes four figure in the corners, and three faces in the central wheel with faces ringed by turban rolls not unlike the rolls that frame the faces on the VMS star pages.

There are many other manuscripts with spiral and whorled imagery, these just happened to be at hand, so I include them as visually appealing examples.


As I mentioned, I have not made a systematic study of these shapes, in fact I’ve barely looked at the parts of the VMS that include them, so I offer the information above as a “quick grab” from my files for those with a specific interest in VMS whorls.


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 Lion and the Phoenix

In a previous blog, I illustrated some of the Asian stylistic conventions that influenced Persian art in the middle ages, with dragon and phoenix imagery as examples. A while later, it occurred to me that someone reading the blog might get the misimpression that the phoenix itself had been inherited from east Asian art, but that is not that case. Persian culture was already rich with “phoenix/firebird” legends prior to the infusion of Asian illustrative traditions.

The Simurgh is a mythical bird that greatly resembles the east Asian phoenix except that it was originally drawn with a lion’s face and forepaws. In most respects, however, it would be mistaken for a phoenix by anyone not familiar with Arabic script or ancient Persian culture and, indeed, the two became almost indistinguishable after Asian drawing styles and myths were absorbed into Persian art, as is illustrated by this 17th century example:

In Isfandiyâr’s fifth trial in the Book of Kings (1616), he battles the simurgh with a well-aimed swipe to the neck. In the same manuscript, the simurgh is present at the birth of Rustam,legendary hero-to-be, who teams up with the simurgh to defeat Isfandiyâr. [Image courtesy of NYPL Spencer Coll. Pers. MS 3.]

We can trace the evolutionary development of the Persian simurgh in reverse. In this 1330 manuscript from Shiraz, we see the simurgh with phoenix body and a shorter raptor neck and head, engaged in a fierce battle with Isfandiyâr. It is similar in form to an illustrated version of The Wonders of Creation that was written in the 13th century. This Sassanid silver plate has a bird-like version of the symurgh motif that was popular from around the 7th to 10th centuries:

This birdlike simurgh retains very little of the lion shape other than the forepaws, and includes a more extravagant tail similar to later expressions of phoenix imagery. [Photo credit: Reza Abbasi Museum, Tehran.]

In even earlier depictions, the lion head and paws of the Simurgh are more evident, as in this silk fabric based on a griffon-style simurgh, a motif that was popular from the 6th to 9th centuries and possibly earlier. The only really bird-like aspect is the wings, although sometimes a mammalian face would include a beak:

Silk fabric featuring two simurghs facing one another with a tree (possibly the tree of life) between them. [Image credit:Tehran National Museum photo by Fabien Dany –]

Sometimes a dog was substituted for the lion, but either way, the simurgh of this time period was rather gryphon-like.

This 13th-century image from the Aberdeen Bestiary, resembles the earlier raptor-like versions of the simurgh more than the eastern phoenix or later Persian simurghs:

In the Aberdeen Bestiary, from about 1200, a raptor-like phoenix sits in a container that it has created with aromatic substances such as frankincense and myrrh. It looks toward the sun and fans the flames that will soon consume it. This hawk or eagle form of phoenix is more similar to the earlier Persian simurghs than later ones that show far-Asian influence. [Image credit: Aberdeen Univ Lib. MS 24.]

In ancient depictions, from several centuries BCE until the Roman period, in both text and image, the Simurgh, or Senmurw, is a raptor associated with health and prosperity and has linguistic associations with a bird that collected and dispersed seeds far and wide to facilitate a good harvest. The imagery was merged with a lion or dog and then gradually morphed into an eastern-style phoenix. This detail of ancient harvest myths may be of interest to Voynich researchers.

It’s difficult to know how long the tree-of-life and harvest associations with the simurgh were retained, as the simurgh was constantly evolving, but there is a perplexing image in the Voynich Manuscript in which a creature that looks like a bird sits in a nest (or some kind of container) on a precipitous tor. Next to the bird is a tree-like structure that might be a tree, bush, or perhaps stalks of grain. It’s difficult to tell because many medieval drawings of trees are rather twig or grain-like.

Assuming this is a bird in a nest, it’s almost impossible to guess what kind of bird it is—it’s not very clearly drawn and many birds nest on the ground or in high places. There is another bird, or possibly another rendition of the same bird, in the upper right corner, which may or may not relate directly to the one below.


I’m sure there are already many explanations for the identity and meaning of the VMS bird—there are thousands of bird stories, many of them featuring raptors that nest in high places—but I wonder if anyone has suggested that this might be the ancient phoenix, in the style of some of the more ancient Persian harvest birds, or the firebird in the Aberdeen Bestiary presiding in its aromatic container. Could the grain-like “tree” that hovers over the VMS bird represent both crop fertility and the tree of life? These days, we’re accustomed to very extravagant drawings of phoenixes, but the earliest depictions of the symurgh and its medieval European variations were much simpler than they are now.

A phoenix drawn with Asian influence snatches baby Zal, the legendary warrior king and father of Rostam, in a detail from a c. 1370 manuscript from the Topkapi Palace Museum.

It was not uncommon for the simurgh to be drawn next to steep hills. The example on the right shows the phoenix rescuing baby Zal by a tall tree-flecked tor. The “Conference/Councourse of Birds” (a legend about birds seeking the phoenix to be their king) also frequently shows the birds against the backdrop of a steep mountain.

I’m not inclined to identify the VMS bird as a phoenix—the surrounding images don’t seem to confirm that idea. The bird in the top-right corner looks like it’s flying past a cloud deluge rather than into the sun to be consumed by flames, and phoenix myths don’t shed any light on the mysterious half-hidden figures on the left. But I wanted to mention the possibility in case there might be other myths or associations with the phoenix that could explain aspects of this folio. Three of the corners look like there is something flowing out of them, so the bottom-right is unique in having a plant-like structure rather than streams of mist or water (or spiritual energy). I’ve been assuming each corner is somehow associated with the others, but how direct that association might be is hard to say.

So, it’s just a thought (out of many), something to mull over until more is known about the bird.

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

The Gumshoe Herb Hunter

It’s a delight to look through old herbal manuscripts, especially those with text that describes the plants and their uses. Even if the language and style of script are unfamiliar (and heavily abbreviated), that’s part of the fun—you get to be a detective.

Trinity College MS O.2.48, for example, is full of intriguing details. Created a century or so before the Voynich manuscript, it includes more than 300 herbal images. Some plants are recognizable and others take effort to decipher, even when names are provided in several languages. Fortunately, the Web is full of resources to help us unravel the identifications.

MS O.2.48 parallels Plut.73.Cod.16 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) in many ways, which means the two can be enjoyed side-by-side while sorting out some of the more puzzling imagery.

They are not exact copies, the two manuscripts differ in drawing style and page layout—Plut.73 is more heavily and evenly painted, and the plants are more stylized and symmetric, as can be seen in these examples:

The Plutei and Trinity College manuscripts differ in drawing style, layout and content, but include many parallels that can help sort some of the less obvious plant IDs.


MS O.2.48 was created sometime in the 1300s at an uncertain location. In addition to images of herbs, there are scenes about how herbs were used. For example, on folios 54v and 55r, herbe salomonis is held aloft by an important figure to help him exorcise the demons to the right:

At the top of the scene is something of particular interest to Voynich researchers, V-shaped crenellations called swallowtail merlons, similar to those on the rosettes foldout in Beinecke 408. This architectural style was associated, in earlier centuries, with the Ghibellines, supporters of the Holy Roman Empire, who were at political odds with those who supported the pope in Rome. Swallowtail merlons have become decorative elements since that time, but in the 14th and 15th centuries, they were still emblems of a long-standing power feud between the loyalists and the papists.

So what exactly do those merlons signify in a section devoted to herbs? Do they reveal the political leanings of those who created the manuscript? Or were the creators contemptuous of attempts to establish power centers outside of Rome? Or are they saying that supporters of the emperor are heretics in need of herbal “therapy”?

The text to the left of the plant gives us a clue. It identifies the man holding the plant as “beat[us] augustin[us] and describes a brief legend of the saint and the martagon plant (also labeled salominis, ventriosa/ventuosa, and vermatore). Thus, St. Augustine, who was born in Algeria and served as bishop of the region before traveling to northern Italy, was chosen to administer the rights. St. Augustine is an important symbol of the Catholic church and thus would be considered by papists as an appropriate emissary for wielding herbal power.

The provenance of MS O.2.48 is uncertain, but it’s thought it may have been created in Germany. The Ghibelline merlons suggest that if it is Germany, it’s probably southern Germany or Lombardy (which is now part of northern Italy). Lombardy was much larger in the middle ages, with an interesting blend of cultures (Scandinavian, German, Italian, and Bohemian) and was known to have a number of illumination studios. Sloane 4016 (mid-15th century) is one of the best-known herbal manuscripts created in this region.

On the Trail of the Martagon

Thus, the drawing reveals something about those who created the manuscript, but the label next to the plant is hard to reconcile with the plant itself. Most of the Trinity MS plant illustrations are reasonably naturalistic, but this plant doesn’t resemble the martagon lily (aka Turk’s cap lily) in any way—the roots, leaves, and flowers are all wrong.

A closer look at the flowers shows red droplets. Is this a reference to sap or perhaps to blood? There are a number of plants with red sap, but most of them don’t look like this. The alternate names aren’t helpful either. ventuosa/ventriosa, and vermatore/virmatore aren’t easy to reconcile, many old plant names have been lost, but Salonis/Salomonis might be helpful. There are a number of plants that go by this name, which is an ancient reference to King Solomon.

The most well-known plant associated with the name is Sigillum salomonis, or Solomon’s seal, due to the round seal-like scars on the plant’s knobby roots. Unfortunately, its distinctive bell-like white flowers dangling from one side of the stem don’t look like the plant in Trinity O.2.48.

Verbena was once called “tears of Isis” and was later adapted into the Christian religion as the herb that was placed on Christ’s wounds. This might explain the red droplets, but Verbena is already represented in the Trinity MS by a drawing that more closely resembles the actual plant. The herbs in the Nine Herbs Charm didn’t provide any close matches either. Mugwort fits the context, but the flowers are spikes and the leaves are deeply serrated.

Bishop’s wort (Stachys officinalis) is an ingredient in remedies to exorcise demons. It has elliptical leaves but doesn’t closely match the flowers, and doesn’t explain the red droplets, but it’s closer to the drawing than plants called “martagon” or “Salomonis”, and fits the context.


I considered that the plant might be St. John’s wort (Hypericum), which has elliptical leaves, red sap that appears when the leaves are pounded, and fuzzy yellow flowers that change to a berry-like fruit. It is said to provide protection against demons, but it doesn’t appear to have a strong connection to exorcisms, and the plant in Trinity O.2.48 is quite large, larger than one might expect Hypericum to be drawn.

Laurus nobilis courtesy of Wikipedia.

The best candidate I’ve found so far, and I’m not certain it’s the right one, is Laurus nobilis, known as sweet bay. Laurel is a large shrubby plant with elliptical leaves and clusters of yellow flowers that point in various directions and change to small black fruits. It was a healing herb with the power to exorcise demons. In the 19th century, Parkinson writes: “It serveth to adorne the house of God, as well as of man; to procure warmth, comfort, and strength…” Northcote notes in 1903 that the Romans called it “the Plant of the Good Angell” and that it was used, in Rome, to “trim up their Churches and Monasteries on Solemn Festivals…” So Laurus nobilis has a strong connection to the Christian church consistent with the legend of St. Augustine.

So perhaps sweet bay is the puzzling plant and perhaps not. As far as Voynich research goes, a number of detractors have used the difficulty of identifying the VMS plants as a rationale for calling the VMS a hoax, but Trinity O.2.48 demonstrates that a plant can be clearly drawn and labeled, and even include allegorical imagery to explain it further, and still be a challenge to unravel.

                                                                                                                                   J.K. Petersen


Postscript: After I wrote this blog, I became aware of M. Ponzi’s translation of the story of St. Augustine in the Trinity MS text. You might enjoy reading the story so I have added a link here.

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

Cultural Pollination

In the days before overpopulation and “private property” made it difficult to travel without getting permission or a passport, humans were nomadic. They followed the seasons and, when they had “used up” the resources in a particular spot, they moved to another one, eventually colonizing the whole planet, including places where the snow never melts. As resources dwindled, they changed from colonizers to conquerors, often displacing or assimilating earlier cultures.

From Watering Holes to Warfare

The Mongols have long been known for their great equestrian skills, and for their ability to travel long distances through harsh climates. In the 13th century they were ambitious invaders, making repeated efforts to conquer China, parts of Russia, and even eastern Europe—their campaigns ranged over thousands of miles. In so doing, they came in contact with diverse cultures, sometimes absorbing their ideas, other times influencing or extinguishing them.

Some theorists say the Asian style of dragon that is especially prevalent in China, and to a lesser extent in Persia, was influenced by Mongolian art. I don’t have time to research this, it seems to me that 13th-century Mongolian art has a different look and different themes, and that a phoenix with flowing lines existed in early Japanese art and is found in Uzbekistan mosaic art, so perhaps it was indirect rather than direct influence that brought the extravagant flames and curlicue clouds to Persia in the middle ages. There were surely multiple lines of transmission, Mongol caravans with foreign goods, and new trade routes opened by Mongol incursions, but land-roving nomads were not the only visitors—seafaring traders were constantly moving goods between east and west and ship technology was constantly improving. Whatever the source, the ties with Asia are readily apparent in 13th-century Persian art.

Click to see a larger version.


This fabulous textile art, created around the 11th or 12th century in east-central Asia, is thought to have been crafted by the Turkic Uyghur people, and might represent another route of transmission for east-to-west dragon imagery:

Note: Uyghur dragon textile was added a few hours after the blog was published. Note the tail snaking through the legs, a motif often seen in Mediterranean and western European drawings of lions. [Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.]

With reference to the Persian Ilkhanid Period (1256–1353):

“In [book] illustration, new ideas and motifs were introduced into the repertoire of the Muslim artist, including an altered and more Chinese depiction of pictorial space, as well as motifs such as lotuses and peonies, cloud bands, and dragons and phoenixes.” –Suzan Yalman, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

[Cockerel images added April 8, 2017] These examples from a group of Arabic manuscripts that were inspired by Al-Qazwini’s 13th-century bestiary, illustrate interesting differences in style:

Al-Qazwini’s bestiary, created around the mid-13th century, was reproduced in different versions. The top example of a cock from Walters MS 659 (1500s) is a traditional depiction, with no exaggeration in the landscape or details, the bottom one, from Bibliotèque Bordeau MS 1130, clearly shows eastern influence in the curlicue clouds, undulating landscape, and extravagant flame-like tail-feathers. The cock has almost been transformed into a phoenix.

Within the next few centuries, the eastern influence becomes even more apparent…

The British Library holds an illustrated Arabic romance of the adventures of the Persian King Darab, originally composed in the 12th century by Muhammad ibn Hasan Abu Tahir Tarsusi. The library’s copy dates to between c. 1580 to c. 1585, so it’s not as old as the phoenix tiles, but it shows a similar adaptation of eastern style in dragon art.

In this dramatic scene, Bahman and his horse are swallowed whole:

The nose looks like a camel, and it’s clearly a malevolent beast, but the tendrils on the lower jaw, the whiskers, eye-stripe, and mane are in the flamelike undulating style that is common to Chinese dragons.

[I had an example of an Asian-style dragon from western Europe that I found about three months ago but, unfortunately, despite a concerted hunt through my files, I can’t find it. If I do, I will upload it here.]


This is, in a sense, a follow-up to the post on the jongleurs, where the French illustrator used a different style to express itinerant performers (who may have been of eastern origin), but I also have a personal interest in Asian art and looked up some more specific examples that relate to cultural transmission to see when these particular styles were introduced to the Arabic world. Persia has had political ties with China at least since the 6th century (royalty intermarried), so there may be other examples, but unfortunately I can’t pursue all of them.

The images are interesting in their own right, so I decided to post them for Voynich researchers who may be curious about cultural influences between east and west.

J.K. Petersen

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