Whatever purpose the centre-emblems first served, their inscription with month-names presents them as a calendar-series, of which the simplest and best known type is surely the ‘the Labours of the Months’ which show the peasants’ assigned works, month by month, with the constellations which marked that period of the annual roster.
The worker on the land faced the same constant, endless round of labour which medieval thought identified with the stars themselves, as ‘servants, not lords’ in the oft-repeated phrase first coined by Augustine.
Their own endless roster was imagined and represented interlocking with the scheme of human history: from the words of the deity to Adam “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat” – to the line of historical rulers who ensured that humankind conformed to that divine order which medieval Europe believed expressed by all natural phenomena.
Thus, we find these annual rosters depicted in public spaces as commonly as in manuscript copies of the liturgical calendar. They are made in mosaic, or carved on the exterior of the church or the cathedral, in much the way later times would see a clock installed on the town hall.
Today we are apt to suppose any reference to the stars is ‘astrological’ and especially the constellations of the ‘Roman 12′, but the stars had marked time, season and direction from long before the first brick was laid in Babylon, and a countryman knew them in medieval times as he knew the other natural signs of changing seasons: the birds’ migration, the animals’ changing coat; the time for sap’s rising and sinking. The line between being weather-wise and ‘prophesying’ was admittedly fine, but it was clear.
series of the Labours and Months
Formal correspondences between the medieval ‘labours and the constellations was not rigidly uniform throughout the Latin world. Since winter comes earlier and departs more reluctantly from northern latitudes, the tasks could not everywhere occur in the same month, and so these calendars can be provenanced, fairly well, into their regions according to which constellation is associated with which labour: that is, with each month.
This fact was commented on by some of the earliest modern studies. A seminal work in English was published in 1938, when its author, James Carson Webster, commented that the type descended from classical forms but gained “abundant outlet in the Romanesque period,
when the erection of many churches gave frequent occasions for rendering the labors of the months; and the greater number of examples in this period consequently allows certain broad differences in the iconography of the theme to appear in the different countries of western Europe.” (p.2)
- James Carson Webster, The Labors of the Months in Antique and Mediaeval Art to the End of the Twelfth Century. (1938)
I draw attention to that early study to show that throughout the past ninety years anyone interested in the Voynich emblems ( most presuming them meant for a zodiac) had available to them scholarly studies explaining the regional variations and offering a yardstick for evaluating what we see in these emblems. Even earlier if less comprehensive studies exist by German and by Italian authors, and though the older studies place over-much emphasis on the idea of the ‘artist’ – as if these images were exercises in self-expression – more recent studies too might save current Voynich writers much effort and time as they strive to create from scratch arguments for one national character or another for this manuscript.
A simpler classification will do for our present purpose. Routinely used today, this refers to a ‘northern latitudes’ and a ‘southern latitudes’ model while acknowledging that between these two major types minor graduations existed.
‘Northern’ versus ‘southern’
For the ‘northern’ model, I’ll start by quoting a Middle English lyric found in a fifteenth-century manuscript at Oxford ( Bodleian MS. Digby 88). I’ve chosen it because it is 12thC English, and still consistent with 15thC practice in the colder regions.
More – Wilfrid Voynich asserted his manuscript one written by a thirteenth-century English author, indirectly drawing into his theoretical ‘history’ for the manuscript, the same Kenelm DIgby who donated to the Bodleian at Oxford the manuscripts he inherited from a former tutor – thus creating the foundation of the Digby collection including Digby 88.
I don’t think it impossible that some at least of Wilfrid’s assertions are well-founded, but his documentation is so poor (even for an amateur) and his habit of expounding theories independent of any proven link to the primary document warns against placing any more reliance on that ‘history’ than on more recent ones expounded in such a way.
However, the 12thC lyric runs:
Januar By thys fyre I warme my handys;
Februar And with my spade I delfe my landys.
Marche Here I sette my thynge to springe;
Aprile And here I here the fowles singe.
Maij I am as lyght as byrde in bowe;
Junij And I wede my corne well I-now.
Julij With my sythe my mede I mawe;
Auguste And here I shere my corne full lowe.
September With my flayll I erne my brede;
October And here I sawe my whete so rede.
November At Martynesmasse I kylle my swine;
December And at Cristesmasse I drynke redde wyne.
The British Library’s website includes a recent article listing the month-constellation correspondence according to the ‘northern latitudes’ model (after a caveat: “illustrations follow a more or less standardised formula, although the details can vary enormously”):
January: … Aquarius, and feasting, sometimes with the two-faced Roman god of time and transitions, Janus, who looks both backwards to the previous year as well as to the year to come.
February: the fish of Pisces, and someone warming his or her feet by a fire.
March: the ram of Aries, with the pruning of trees.
April: the bull of Taurus, and a spring activity of enjoying the countryside and picking flowers.
May: the twins of Gemini, and hawking.
June: the crab of Cancer and reaping or harvesting of hay.
July: the lion of Leo and harvesting of wheat.
August: the woman of Virgo, and threshing.
September: the scales of Libra, and grape harvesting or the making of wine.
October: the scorpion of Scorpio, and sowing.
November: the archer of Sagittarius, and gathering acorns for hogs or pigs.
December: the goat of Capricorn, and the slaughter of the pig.
from: Kathleen Doyle, Cristian Ispir, ‘Medieval Calendars‘ ( The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700–1200.)
I expect you may have noticed, already, that the custom in the colder north was to associate April with Taurus – but neither with the Goat now inscribed with the name of that month in the Voynich series nor with the Sheep which most researchers have presumed the paired goats were.
As a first inference, we might take it that the person who inscribed the month-names had never been impressed with the ‘northern latitude’ model as his default: not by his daily routines, nor by formal education, nor even as a result of constant exposure to the series so often and so publicly displayed.
That problem returns us, yet again, to the question of the dialect in which the added month-names are written.
The dialect for the Voyninch month-names.
Certainty has often been expressed on the point, but too often in the form of assertion and counter-assertion as if the aim of study were to silence all other opinions rather than to provide a solid explanation for what we find in the primary document.
At present, the most-often proposed dialects remain Occitan (first propsed by Stolfi?) or Anglo-Norman (first proposer unknown), and with Judeo-Catalan proposed by Artur Sixto, a native speaker ). In 1932, Panofsky said, “the names of the months … undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish”. Quite recently, Ger Hungerlink – an unequivocal supporter of the ‘Germanic’ theory – has asserted them in an ‘Alemannic’ dialect, of which there are several. On the Alemannic group, descending from medieval High German, the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:
Alemannic dialects, which developed in the southwestern part of the Germanic speech area, differ considerably in sound system and grammar from standard High German. These dialects are spoken in Switzerland, western Austria, Swabia, and Liechtenstein and in the Alsace region of France. Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazic Jews (Jews whose ancestors lived in Germany in the European Middle Ages), also developed from High German.
Several of the dialects proposed (including Anglo-Norman) are proper to the northern latitudes, in which April’s labour is overseen by the Bull not by the Goat – nor by the Sheep.
In more southerly latitudes, the tasks of the year could begin earlier and though the image of a constellation might be moved to the adjacent month (because the constellations straddle two), the practical purpose for these calendars meant that depiction of a given task might shift forward as much as two months. In this way, a pairing routine in a southern calendar of this sort would be impossible in the colder north.
As example, the version made for the Cathedral of Otranto in Sicily, during the early phrases of Norman rule in that island.
Here, January is shown under the Goat – associated with December in the northern model. The ‘hand-warming’ labour here pictured under the Goat was in the north delayed until February and was depicted under the Fishes.
Again, the northern type associates March with the Sheep, but in Otranto that constellation appears for April, while it shows hunting (not just hawking), in this month, where the northern model delays it for another two, associating hawking with May and with the Twins.
It is worth noting that already, in the Otranto mosaic, the Goat is formed as a natural animal and not the classical hybrid of goat and sea-beast. On the other hand, as usual, the sheep’s horns are shown curling out and around its ears. Whether a Latin of the north, or of the south, the person inscribing the month-names should have been able to see that the Voynich emblems are not showing sheep.
For March, which the northern type depicts with the Sheep constellation, the Otranto mosaic has Pisces, and this is apparently how the inscriber read the emblem of the two Fishes. Recently, a blogpost by J.K. Petersen has drawn attention to a ‘Pisces’ whose fish are depicted in this ‘dog and dragon’ fashion. He describes that image as one from a manuscript made in Prague and it is a particularly interesting example, given that the origin of astronomical and astrological studies in Prague is believed to date from the thirteenth century, when the king of Spain sent ‘as a gift’ an astronomer from his own court to that of Premysl Ottokar II (ruled 1253 – 1278 inc.). Petersen does not say what month is associated with the figure in that manuscript.
If the person who wrote the month-names was no ‘northerner’ it is still difficult to envisage him as a native Latin from the south, unless he was aiming to mislead other readers or genuinely mistook the form of the paired goats for pictures of the Sheep.
It is not beyond all possibility that the month-names were inscribed by someone distracted, distressed, or even senile given the way the hand disintegrates so rapidly, but simple over-confidence would explain it well enough. The point is that he cannot have had any communication with the person who first enunciated the series in Beinecke MS 408 and gives no indication of being a ‘central European’.
To return for a moment to Ger Hungerlink’s assertion that the month-names in an ‘Alemannic dialect’. Those of his comments that I’ve seen give the impression that he is referring to the way those dialects are spoken today, without any investigation of how they might have been spoken six centuries ago, before French influence was as strong as it now is. Perhaps some specialist in historical linguistics may clarify this point at some time.
One might say more, and in analysing the series some time ago, I did say a good deal more but 2000+s words is surely enough for a post to ‘Annotated News’.
Postscript: About tropical versus sidereal months – anyone curious might like to consider the definition of each and list of months according to each system included in the wiki article ‘zodiac’.