Sheep, Goats: common sense vs a case for the prosecution.

In all but the most disciplined Voynich writers,  one sees an almost imperceptible ‘sideways slip’ soon begin to affect their work.  By this I mean a shift from efforts to understand and elucidate the primary source, to efforts to collect items in support of a theory they find attractive.  Questions asked are about that theory, and even the basic question –  ‘Is that true’ – may cease to appear.

The ‘slide’ is as often unremarked by the researcher as by his or her readers, and in fact a surprising number of readers assess information only on the basis of whether or not it might support a theory they prefer.

Such habits have brought with them an emphasis on head-counts, as if the number believing this or that is sufficient proof of an idea’s historical validity. But the history of this study, itself, shows the fallacy clearly enough: a show of hands at any time in the first half of the twentieth century would have defined as the ‘commonsense’ view that the manuscript was made in thirteenth-century England and hand-written by Roger Bacon.

Relying on  shared assumptions and expectations of a modern audience is a poor means to judge historical events and artefacts.  The researcher might do better to envisage his role less as preparing the defence of a favoured theory than as preparing a case for the prosecution: critically examining evidence for its range, quality and formal rigor in an effort to make an argument tight enough to be beyond reasonable doubt. It is an ideal, a model, and the effects of time and distance make it difficult to suppose it could ever be more.

As more recent illustration of why we cannot rely on personal impressions or even on the general idea of ‘common sense’,  I’ll consider opinions about the two creatures about whom Koen Gheuens recently commented in passing, within his post discussing a different detail – one from f. 80v.   His passing comment read as follows:

“We kind of know that this [these?] should be a ram, a male sheep, given its appearance in a series of Zodiac emblems. However, it looks more like a goat. Besides that, its face is flat as if it was run over by a road roller.”

Koen Gheuens, ‘The Beast on f80v’, herculeaf (wordpress) 6th June, 2019.

To have said more about the ‘April’ centres would have taken him too far from his principal subject, but his saying we “kind of know” flags the fact that we do not know the pair are meant for male sheep.  Why is it still a guess?  Koen was kind enough to respond when I asked about precedents for the ‘goat’ suggestion, pointing me to communications to the old mailing list from October 2004, in which  Dana Scott was credited, somewhat uncertainly, as having first interpreted them that way. Each of the two (and its label) is distinguished from the other in small ways.  Again, one might ask why and what significance, if any, that effort might imply.




Realising that the match between modern expectation (i.e of an Aries/sheep) and actuality (goat-like) is imperfect, Koen opted for the ‘common sense’ idea (“we sort of know..”) while acknowledging the fact (“looks more like a goat”), and so effectively conflating modern expectations with the actual evidence of six centuries ago.  A reader might take from that the unfortunate impression that the pictures ought to show a couple of sheep in keeping with our modern expectations, and that their not doing so is in some way a fault of the image-maker. But a person who lived six centuries ago had no obligation to satisfy the expectations of a twenty-first century urban and largely secular society.  The images aren’t ‘failing’ to satisfy us; we are failing to read them clearly.

So now, one must ask what evidence is offered by researchers and by the images themselves which can make a case for either side of the ‘sheep’ vs  ‘goat’ as having been the intention of the original – remembering that the month-names were added after the series of centres. How much later they were added has never been formally or well argued but we have similar orthography attested on a couple of astronomical instruments believed made in Picardy during the period of strong English influence in north-western France (c.1400).

What sources led to Dana’s view I’ve not discovered,* but thanks to Koen,  who directed me to the old mailing list’s communications of October 2004, I can provide the following:

stolfi@xxxxxxxxxxxxx 10/10/2004 9:05:05 PM >>>

[re Pamela Richards’ saying:] I think it was Dana Scott who called the two young animals, light and dark “goats”. I am very inclined
to agree. ..

[Stolfi said] No dispute about them being goats. But, as Pam observed in a later  message, that is only one of the oddities in the VMS zodiac illustrations. ..

By ‘oddities’ are meant points at which the Voynich imagery declines to conform to modern expectations of what it will contain, signs of its purpose and details of form.   I cannot emphasise enough that to suppose the images  ‘fail’ to conform to our expectations is quite the wrong attitude;  what ‘fails’ is simply our ability to read them as plainly their original readers would have done.

Why do the modern explanations fail?   There is no simple answer but certainly evidence of anachronism is found throughout discussions of the imagery and efforts to create and maintain a theoretical ‘history’ for the finished manuscript.  As far as the imagery goes, anachronism seems to be inevitable given the constant habit of supposing the aims of medieval image-makers identical to those of present-day artists: the production of a realistic ‘likeness’ or the diary-entry style expressing the individual’s  emotions and personal world-view.

To approach medieval imagery with such assumptions is a very risky course; the habit of depicting other peoples and times as ‘just like us’ is appealing, of course, but doesn’t long survive deeper study of the medieval world.

For the medieval maker and reader of images, pictures and the world reflected in them were conceived rather differently and it can be helpful to describe those pictures as utterances of a pictorial language whose grammar and vocabulary were known to maker and to intended readers as natural expression of their own shared culture.   Especially before printing became common, images expressed the content in well-known texts as much as attempting to portray the superficial appearance of a thing.

Significance, more than appearance, provided the key to reading imagery, something a modern often has difficulty in understanding. It can help if one  thinks of pictures not as ‘illustrating’ a written text, but as embodying it  in another form of encoded line.  One has to be alert to the fact that even pictures with accompanying text may embody  partly, or even entirely, the matter of some other and quite different written work.

Pamela did explain her reasons for accepting Dana’s “goats” and though her argument is badly flawed (by an anachronistic expectation of literalism, and by factual error) it does not mean the identification itself is wrong.  What is really surprising is that no-one noticed either flaw.

She wrote:

“… I am very inclined to agree [with Dana]… Sheep don’t have dew claws, those tiny hard horns above the hooves; goats do. And those dew claws are very clearly depicted on each foot.”

No-one else on the list, including Stolfi, responded by pointing out that this is not true: sheep do have dew claws. Some breeds  have larger ones; others have smaller and in some breeds the fleece may cover them… but  sheep have dew-claws  The fact is easily checked. Just as an easy link, here’s  a website containing Purdue University’s ANSC 442 Sheep Management course notes:

If Pamela had meant to say that a medieval Latin draughtsman, wanting to depict a sheep, as distinct from a goat, would omit the dew-claws from his drawing, it would be a more appropriate approach, but it is no more true in fact.

As you see from the following example from an archivolt of Chartres’ northern portal (12thC), a medieval sheep might also be shown with its dew-claws.

Chartres. Royal [West] Portal, North side.  12thC

Another series of the ‘months and works’ sort shows Capricorn. Here it is given a ‘sea-goat’ tail and wings, yet other details are literal such as the goat’s beard and the usual form for a goat’s horns in medieval Latin art: simple, back-swept horns. 

It is quite typical of medieval imagery (not only astronomical or religious images) that some details will be accurate in the literal sense and others not, but all will carry  accurately the significance of the thing, according to  medieval Europe’s earlier common Christian culture and writings.  It was that common religious culture which made the imagery easily legible to persons throughout Europe before the middle of the fifteenth century.

Combining  Capricorn’s tail with these wings echoes the presence of such attributes in the devil,   reminding the viewer that the goat can be employed as an emblem of the devil, and so the negative counterpart to the ‘lamb’ by which religious writings described both Christ and his followers.

The ‘goatee’ beard on men was as yet unknown, except as an attribute of Pan who had himself served as model for conceptions of the devil. At Chartres, however, these details for Capricorn are no more than a hint to aid recall of ideas already general. It implies no particularly evil character for the constellation.

Fish- tail and goatee are, however, both absent from the   ‘April’ animals and neither was required in this case, for the draughtsman has included details so closely associated with the creature’s name (medieval Latin: caper. Modern Capra) that the reading as ‘goat’ leaps from the page, so long as the reader knew that where sheep and kine grazed the grasses of farmland and meadow, the ‘capra’ with its curious yellow eyes lived in broken terrain and browsed upon shrubs and trees and thorn-bushes.

Indeed, by reference to habit and habitat one needed no more than  Isidore’s Etymologies to make plain the intention of the pictures on these folios.  Isidore’s text served (as is often said) as the Medieval equivalent of our  Encyclopaedia Britannica and did so from about the tenth century until early in the fifteenth. After Biblical texts and commentaries, it was the work most-copied throughout Europe and almost a thousand manuscript copies remain today: some partial and others complete.

I won’t pretend the last point is a new insight.  I made the same point in my post treating these pictures in 2012, though then unaware that Dana had evidently said the same fully eight years earlier.  One saw no mention of his opinion at that time, nor had I from 2008, when first introduced to Beinecke MS 408.

Part of my post read:

“…the pictures … show a rough-haired and a smooth-haired creature on hilly ground, munching on a bush or small tree.

[This speaks to] the goat’s habitat, and habit, inextricably bound to its name.    Isidore has  in order (in Bk 10) enough to make the picture:

                  • He-goats: caper
                  • cropping bushes: capere
                  • uneven places: capatere aspera

As the reader scans this image each and every detail, when spoken aloud in the Latin, says  caper…  GOAT.

In keeping with those linguistic cues are the animal’s horns, shown as goat’s horns were:  as simple and back-swept and quite distinct from those given a sheep or ram.  Here, as example, the horns of the Aberdeen Bestiary’s ram, curled above and out behind the ears.

Aberdeen University Library, Univ. Lib. MS 24, f. 21r England, ca. 1200.

This ‘curled over’ character is attested early, and maintained into the twelfth century, though I note that among the images in a composite of ‘Aries’ figures made by J.K. Petersen were a number which he attributed to France or Belgium and in which the horns were more ‘goat-like’.  Petersen omitted details of the manuscripts from which he took those images and I cannot check that all were indeed meant for Aries – I must refer you to Petersen himself – but given the various other indications provided by this series of centres that they derive from the north-western corner of France between Paris, London and Belgium,   I do not think it inappropriate that the exceptions in his composite should be attributed to that region.  The ‘details’ I mean include, of course, the month-names written over them.

In the post of 2012, the absence of any beard on Voynich figures, led me to include the following pair as demonstration that while a literal depiction of the goat within Latin Europe might normally include the beard, the custom was not everywhere observed.

The upper example is (again) from the Aberdeen Bestiary and the lower from a mosaic still to be seen from Greco-Roman Antioch.

from:  D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Astrological zodiac’ roundels ~ the hypothesis, voynichimagery,  (Monday, October 22nd, 2012).

Since 2012 I have seen no argument offered from both text and comparative imagery which might lead me to think the ‘April’ animals designed as other than figures of goats, but we must suppose that after being inscribed they were co-opted to serve as images for Aries (why?).

Few comments were offered to my post of 2012, and fewer still offered directly at my blog.  An exception was the comment kindly offered  by Nick Pelling,  who wrote (on Friday, October 26th, 2012):

Isn’t the simplest explanation that the author was a townie, and couldn’t tell his/her Donkey from his/her Elbow? Errrm… sheep from his/her goat?

I’m not sure of the sense in which he meant ‘simple’.

(below) Image of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa) courtesy of Eden Seeds, Australia.

*postscript –

I omitted to mention in the original version of this post (though I had done so earlier in a post to Voynich revisionist) that in 1976 Robert S. Brumbaugh had said in passing that the Voynich ‘aries’ images are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”(p.147)..
Robert S. Brumbaugh,’The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.


One thought on “Sheep, Goats: common sense vs a case for the prosecution.

  1. D.N. O'Donovan says:

    I omitted to mention here (though I had done in a post to Voynich revisionist) that Robert S. Brumbaugh had said in passing that the Voynich ‘aries’ images are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”(p.147)..
    Robert S. Brumbaugh,’The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.