In the last few posts I have been gradually narrowing the perimeter around a hypothetical source for the Voynich Zodiac figures. My focus has mostly been on 15th century Alsatian copy shops (“1418” and Diebold Lauber), which seem to have inherited the same type of images. More work is to be done there, but I’m afraid Alsace alone won’t be enough

Johannes Hartlieb

Johannes Hartlieb (c. 1410 – 1468) was a Bavarian physician, writer and translator.  He was mentioned a few times before in relation to Voynich studies, notably by Rene Zandbergen who referenced the Lion illustration in a 1462 copy of Hartlieb’s Kräuterbuch.


I’ve also come across Hartlieb in my search for different versions of Megenberg’s Buch der Natur. In Hartlieb’s 1455 copy, I proposed an explanation for the VM’s infamous “browsing Aries”. Images of Aries eating from a tree are hard to find, yet in the VM  Zodiac section it was long thought the beast was nibbling some kind of bonsai tree. Hartlieb’s images show how this is likely an optical illusion. Rather than bonsai-browsing, we’re probably looking at an animal set against a tree in the distant background. In the Voynich version, the head just happens to overlap.

Paint patterns: compare the VM “dark Aries” bottom right with Hartlieb’s version. Once again, an indication that the VM painter attempted to imitate a style of shading above his skill level.

Whether the Voynich illustrator intended to draw a tree in the background, or misinterpreted his exemplar and actually thought he was drawing an eating animal might be impossible to tell. One hypothesis is that he thought the animals were actually eating and therefore replaced the bulls’ trees with baskets. Luckily, such intentions are not very relevant when discussing sources. We’re looking for figures placed in a field with a tree on the horizon, that’s it.

Crossed arms

The reason I am writing about Hartlieb now is a 1482 copy of one of his books, BSB-Ink A-486 – GW 1760, printed in Augsburg. It contains one of the best parallels for the VM Gemini’s pose we have been able to find so far; the lovers’ arms are truly crossed left hand to left and right to right. I mirrored the woodcut since we want to see what the example looked like which was carved into the block.

Apart from the pose, note the small tree in the background, a trait shared with Hartlieb’s Megenberg and both VM goats.

One difference between both couples is the clothing, but it would have been unusual if a 1482 book retained early 15th century dress. The clothes worn by the VM Gemini would have been considered old fashioned many decades before Hartlieb’s book was printed.

The text does not clarify the image much, apart from the fact that the subject is courtly love. The book contains a German translation of De amore by 12th century author Andreas Capellanus. Over at the forum, Marco Ponzi translated the scene accompanied by this image. In short, it explains what to do when a woman rejects your love because you are still inexperienced in life. Capellanus proposes an extreme utilitarian argument: if the woman enters into a relationship with the inexperienced man, he will learn much and the world has more to gain than if she were with a man who was wise enough already and would have little to learn. So the woman should accept his request for the benefit of mankind. Better take notes, guys.


The next logical question is if there are any other illustrated Capellanus manuscripts, and whether they contain a similar image. Unfortunately they are hard to come by; handschriftencensus knows of 15 examples of the German Hartlieb version, but it does not mention any other manuscripts that are both illustrated and digitized.

In 1484 one Georg Stuchs, who had then just started printing, apparently inherited some woodcuts because he used the exact same image. Since this is the same but later, it is probably irrelevant for our purpose.

1482 version top, 1484 bottom

This takes us the wrong way. Where can we find earlier versions of De amore? Before the 15th century, Capellanus’ influential work in Latin had been translated into Italian, Catalan and German (see Wijngaards 1961). So let’s start with the Latin original.

Arlima lists 37 manuscripts. I tried all of them, but the search was long and full of problems; an overview, following Arlima’s list:

  1. Basel: its illustrations have been cut out.
  2. Berlin: not digitized?
  3. Bruges: not digitized
  4. Brussels: not digitized
  5. Erfurt: not digitized
  6. Firenze: not digitized
  7. Göttingen: not digitized
  8. Klagenfurt: not digitized?
  9. Klosterneuburg: not digitized
  10. Krakow, not illustrated
  11. Kremsmunster, not digitized
  12. Kremsmunster, not digitized
  13. L’Aquila not digitized
  14. Leipzig not digitized, no mention of illustrations in description
  15. Luneburg not digitized
  16. Macreata not digitized
  17. Milan not digitized (?)
  18. Montpellier, not illustrated
  19. München: not digitized
  20. München: not digitized
  21. München: not digitized
  22. Oxford: not digitized, no mention of illustrations in description
  23. BNF Lat 8018: not illustrated
  24. BNF Lat 8758: not illustrated
  25. BNF Lat 10363: not illustrated
  26. BNF NAL 1905: only one illustration
  27. Prague, not illustrated
  28. Stuttgart not illustrated
  29. Stuttgart not illustrated
  30. Uppsala not digitized
  31. BAV not illustrated
  32. BAV Ross. 1097: not digitized
  33. BAV Vat.Lat.4363: not digitized
  34. ONB 5363 not illustrated
  35. Wolfenbüttel: no mention of illustrations in description
  36. Wolfenbüttel: no mention of illustrations in description
  37. Wroclaw: ???

After this ordeal, I would like to thank especially libraries like the BNF and BAV for the accessibility and transparency of their digitization efforts. Many other libraries still have a lot to learn.

In summary, many Capellanus MSS are held by small libraries, and there are no signs of any illustrated ones. Additionally, the secondary literature on Capellanus almost always focuses on the text (de Amore, a subject which fascinates many people). I have not yet found a paper on its illustrations.

This might imply that Hartlieb got his illustrative cycle somewhere else, i.e. not from an illustrated Latin Capellanus. That, or a version or translation which I have not yet seen (and there are many). But as far as the easily accessible manuscripts go, I believe I’ve scraped the bottom of the barrel.

If it were easy, it would have been solved already. From this post, I’ll remember the importance if miniature trees.