Skies above Pt 3: to tail or not to tail?

Two previous:

THIS IS THREE-POST LENGTH;  if your phone overheats, let me know and I’ll repost it in parts.

Précis of previous post.

The ‘star-flower’ motif is seen in only two contexts in the manuscript, and only  in quires whose form sits uneasily with theories of wholly European origin for both form and content.  The stacked quires were surely bound in Latin style and a number of the quires are the usual quarternion, but fold-outs like those in the manuscript are without parallel in Latin medieval works so far as we know, and septentions (as Quire 20 is believed to have been) are normally associated with Arabic-speaking regions.

The question of whether the star-flowers might link text from the month-diagrams to that in Quire 20 can’t be taken further until we know more about a ‘rose’ text-mark noted by Lori J. Walters in a thirteenth century manuscript in Tournai (TOU).  If any Voynich researcher decides to look into it, do remember to let me know.

….. so on that point, at present, the balance of evidence is heavily towards the negative.

Earlier references

. For earlier thoughts about the motif as linking text between the month-diagrams and Quire 20,  readers are referred to the basic sources such as d’Imperio and the first mailing list (see Bibliography page) and whatever else might turn up online.   I expect that Nick Pelling’s book of 2006 (now out of print, and which I do not have by me) paid them attention.  Search ‘Quire 20’ at ciphermysteries to read more.

Note that matter presented only on current forums and mailing lists cannot be cited unless sent to me with permission to quote.

 

Q: To ‘tail’ or not to ‘tail’?

I’m sure someone, somewhere, might rightly say they were first to muse aloud  that some star-flowers do, and others don’t have a bit of ‘stem’.

However, it was in 2010 that Pelling posted about script and ‘flower-stars’ in Quire 20, mentioning some points directly relevant to what follows:

  1. That Tim Tattrie had noted (i) “that the paragraph stars on f103 and f116 are notable because they don’t seem to have tails”; and (ii)  pointed out that the character which is rendered in EVA transcription as ‘x’ ( illustrated right) appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116)
  2.  Pelling himself noted, in the same post, that these ‘x’ characters often sit next to ‘ar’ and ‘or’ pairs, e.g. arxor / salxor / kedarxy / oxorshey / oxar / shoxar / lxorxoiin, etc.

I will rephrase the question as:-  ‘Was the distinction between ‘tailed’ and ‘un-tailed’  significant for the first enunciator.?  ‘

*first enunciation”:

in terms of iconology describes the point at which a concept was first expressed in a specific form in physical media. Time and dissemination de-contextualise images, changing associated meaning and  contributing various other forms of overlay.  Where possible – and it is not always possible – identifying and separating such layers (‘chronological strata’), to identify a problematic artefact’s time and region of first enunciation re-contextualises it while clarifying issues of transmission, and so directing research towards  appropriate sources for its full explanation.  For such work – the rarer counterpart of textual criticism and more closely related to archaeology than art history – a solid background in comparative historical and cultural studies, technical studies and – above all –  attention to stylistics is recommended.

What follows is the result of independent study of the  star-flower’s occurrence in this manuscript. Only after this post was written were earlier comments on Quire 20 sought.  Any point on which a similar conclusion is reached here, then, should then be taken as supporting, not as supplanting or imitating precedents as e.g. Tim Tattrie’s remarks.

.

 

IN those eleven month-diagrams, the star-flower’s ‘tail’ reads well enough as a string or as a stem when it occurs. Adding a stem seems to ‘make sense’ of some sort there, but why  should the scribe trouble to add ‘stem’- strokes in Quire 20?

Why bother?

The ‘tailed’ version appears throughout except at the beginning and end of these ‘sentences’.  There is no tail shown in the first two quires sides of Quire 20 (f.103r and f.103v) and none again from the last few ‘sentences’ near the end (f.116r).  Almost all the rest have them. Almost.

 I  take this pattern of application as indicative of meaning conveyed.

Here’s why – the pros and cons.

If, in Quire 20,  the extra stroke (‘stem’) were only present beside the earlier ‘sentences’ or only found over the first couple of folios before it gave way to the simpler version, with that continuing through to the end of that section, then we might reasonably posit that the scribe tired of having to add the extra stroke, knowing that so many repetitions lay ahead.

In such a case, we might also take it that no objection was raised by others to that simplification  – as for example by a master of the atelier or a person who commissioned the work or  persons who needed to use it.  In other words, we might fairly suppose the ‘tail’ had no significance.

(postscript note) I cannot see reason to suppose the tails added later, as Pelling did, but if his observation should be correct, it is further reason to think – if it does not prove –  distinction between ‘tailed’ and ‘untailed’ significant.

Conversely, if a copyist had began by simplifying the motif but  then started to make it more ‘flower-like’, and continued that form to the end,  we might entertain among other possibilities that these marginal ‘star-flowers’ might only be ornamental, as it were a foretaste of the ornament exemplified here (left) by a detail from the Spinola hours, made about a century after the Vms.

But neither is so.

The simpler form is on the first two sides; then the more ornate continues – only to stop just a few ‘sentences’ short of the end.

Still more curious is that the ‘stem’ is omitted sometimes from a line of generally tailed motifs, even when there is ample space to include it, as in folio 115r (illustrated above, right). Nor is the centre of that exception given a red centre; it hasn’t been overlooked, but consciously ‘minimised’..

(postscript note: It is in that context that Tattrie’s observations about the written text gain added interest, suggesting that the inclusion of the ‘x’ character may have some direct relation to the tailed form. “[Voynich] ‘x’ appears on every folio of Q20 except the first (f103) and the last (f116).”

This correlation may also help put a check on the reflex which leads Voynich writers to dismiss as whimsical or arbitrary any element in the imagery for which a theoretical narrative offers no immediate explanation. Many reflexive excuses for a theory’s failure to explain the primary evidence rely on popular modern ideas about “the artist” and so imagine a greater degree of personal autonomy and personal self-expression for the makers than agrees with what we know of the medieval artisan’s position in his world

 

Reason and Purpose

It is also best, I find, to begin from a position that a fifteenth-century work is less likely to be any product of eccentric, autonomous artistic self-expression than one produced for a reason and to a practical purpose by persons who were a fairly normal product of their own time and environment: geographical, cultural and intellectual.

It is that context whose traces we seek in the imagery and which is so often ignored when ‘matches’ are adduced from a severely limited range of Latin manuscripts, the style and  character of whose drawings so rarely do  match that of the supposed target.  Happily, the  emblems which now occupy the month-diagrams’ centres are among the few easily legible by graphic conventions of the Mediterranean world.

Nor are we considering a work presented as a cheap notebook on paper – though in Latin Europe those, too, were habitually ruled out before any writing was done – so we must give due weight to the fact that the material was committed to the expensive and durable medium of vellum. It was made to survive; it was made  pocket-book size and these things in turn imply an expectation of subsequent readers and a form appropriate for use outside the scholarly library.  It is made to be durable, and in a form portable and serviceable. Unless we now imagine the first owner intended to destroy it during his or her own lifetime, then it could also be predicted to be used by at least one following generation.

Accepting as initial default, then, that the work is informed by reason and purpose and meant to embody transmissible information, we come to another possibility for the role of these ‘star-flower’ motifs, and their use both in Quire 20 and the series of month- diagrams.  That is, that their connection may not refer to links between the written text in both, after the style of signe de renvoi, but that the motif signifies related subject-matter as such. And in such a case, direct link between written text in those sections need not be posited at all, yet forms of connection might still exist of potential use to the linguists and cryptanalysts.

Let me offer an hypothetical case.  Let’s suppose…

details

Let us suppose a work whose general theme was the stars visible at a given latitude, month by month.Now, its first section it might have diagrams showing those stars,  in their ranks and order as seen month by month. They might even correlate each star with a particular place as was done, for example, in plates made for an astrolable.

from a late example, made in Lahore. I have shown (in the header) that the sinuous stem and ‘star-flower’ – as sun of night or light in the darkness –  are not incompatible an Indian-Arabic environment.

In another section, then, we suppose the subject is instead the lunar months and the agricultural roster describing each day’s assigned task.

While the stars’ visible progress remains just the same,  some asterisms and stars only are relevant to the second section.  The relevant ones, let’s say, are given a tail in the ‘calendar’ section and  others left without.  The intended reader knew by heart which star or asterism marked a period of the roster and needed no specific text- link to the earlier diagrams at all. Even if those periods might be identified by their stars, they needn’t be named for them.  After all, in the Voynich month-diagrams, the scribe didn’t write ‘Fishes-month’ but ‘March’.

So – in such a case, though without direct textual links, connection would exist in the class of information common to both sections, rather than any single external text or single genre providing a single vocabulary common to both. The parameters of such a search need not be indefinite or infinite; competent analysis of the manuscript’s imagery and the disciplines of their own fields should together assist the linguist and/or cryptographer reduce research parameters to reasonable limits.

Comment:

a hope unlikely to be realised soon. Over the past century the habit has become ingrained of beginning from an assumption that the most critical questions, such as those concerning content, genre and intent – questions scarcely addressed, let alone answered – have answers known and adopted as ‘givens’. So, in seeking ‘matches’ for the plant-pictures, Voynich writers have traditionally begun by presuming any image intended (but failed) to present a literal portrait of some plant from the European herbal corpus, with the intent therefore presumed medico-pharmaceutical. None of these ‘givens’ is known and all of dubious worth, given the failure over that century to find a place within the Latin herbal corpus for images of the style, range or sophistication of the Voynich plant-pictures.

(Koen Gheuens’ study of the ‘lobster’ motif in late medieval European works is one exception to the presumptive method, albeit limited to Latin works. Marco Ponzi’s meticulous study of medieval herbals is itself a worthwhile contribution to that literature, but whether it may prove directly relevant to the Voynich manuscript is yet to be seen).

How much is overlooked by assuming the usual limits for research may be illustrated by mentioning just one compendium of  360 pages, one of the most important plant-books produced in the medieval western Mediterranean, which ranges “from the most delicate flowers to the sturdiest of trees, from staple vegetables to luxury plants”..

I don’t say that the Kitāb al-filāḥa has never been mentioned,  but if ever mentioned was thereafter ignored. Theory-driven perceptions may be held, yet again, responsible. .

N.B. My hypothetical ‘star-related’ text is no more than an illustration; my reference to the astrolabe and to the Filāḥa similarly.  None is to be taken as sign of  ‘Voynich theory’.

Turning to the month-diagrams,

For the rest of this series, I’ll refer to the eleven diagrams by their inscribed month-names, with (1) or (2) added to distinguish names appearing twice .  That is, as ‘March’ or as April (1) etc.

I do this because the usual terminology is another relic.

Even if it should prove true, after investigation, that the emblems were meant to depict a type of zodiac, and that the diagrams were designed to serve astrology and that the informing language were French, German, Latin (or any other), the traditional method and terms are no product of preliminary investigation.  Post-hoc ‘matches’, sought as they are within limits assuming past speculations  fact  have no better basis and thus constantly fail to explain the primary evidence; they explain  the theory.  Not even two hundred examples of Aries as a sheep from Latin manuscript art constitutes proof that the Voynich ‘April’ emblems show sheep, or were intended as symbol for Aries, whether as astrological sign or as constellation.  The revisionist cannot treat the question, ‘What else could they be?’ as rhetorical.

 

Example: the Crossbowman

The first question in such cases is  what significance the figure had within the context it was made and even if we begin with central Europe,  anomalies appear.  Take for example, the ‘December’ diagram, whose centre shows a crossbowman who appears to be cocking his weapon without use of the stirrup or any other aid. In my opinion, what we are seeing is a double roll-nut used in a relatively light-weight bow, made of wood.  Of this type we have no physical example extant earlier than those made for Spanish marines in c.1510.  But I’ll go into more detail about that later in the series.  The usual interpretation of the figure, today, is that it represents Sagittarius.

Yet within central Europe (England, France and Germany) it was not the custom to identify December with Sagittarius.  November was Sagittarius’ month in those medieval calendars.

That discrepancy is rarely addressed when ‘matches’ are offered, such ‘matches’ being quite routinely presented without reference made to the associated month in the comparison – and usually central European – manuscript. Should the point  arise, it has been a natural and instinctive response to blame the ‘artist’ or the hand which wrote the later inscription,  as if it were some flaw in them that the theory-driven comparison was inexact. Such exceptions as occur in the Latin works are adduced without reference to style of drawing, or the wider context of the ‘December’ diagram.

Nor has any study established that the emblems – or indeed the diagrams as a whole – have any connection to astrology or that the series is derived from ideas about the tropical zodiac.  These things ‘everyone knows’ are things no-one actually knows at all. They may or not prove correct, but they are without proof so far.

Even in a specifically European setting and even, within that, in in a specifically astrological context,  a crossbowman may be associated with Leo or – more exactly, Leo’s third decan.

The illustration (above, left) from the Jagelonian Picatix.

(Like Leo, the crossbowman  and the devil in Christian literature-  ‘roams about, seeking what he may devour’).

Understanding what was implied by a given ‘crossbowman’ figure in the imagination of the ordinary population in medieval Europe is often clarified by such sources as the ‘poor man’s book’ – the pack of cards – after c.1377.

The earliest examples of these images on card are hand- painted; in effect single, miniature ‘illuminations’. Sets of printed cards soon appeared, though,  and proved the fortune (in every sense) of the fledgling printing industry.

Employed to assist education, for gambling, and as a spur to elegant word-play, as for fortune-telling, the new ‘joc’ passed from Spain through Italy to Germany within a few years of our earliest mention of cards in Europe in the later fourteenth century. Printers were thus initially speaking directly to the general perception – the common visual language – of contemporary Europe, appealing to ‘what everyone knew’ in terms of educational level,  popular lore, beliefs and prejudices, and across linguistic and social boundaries.

Printers might then re-use those blocks  as ready-made images to illustrate other texts or cut one down for some detail in it. Printing thus soon divorced imagery from specific text and the dedicated meaning an image had within earlier manuscript art.

But already in the early-to-mid fifteenth century, the crossbowman figure had resonance, as we say, throughout Latin Europe.  Contemporaries saw more than some generic ‘man with crossbow’, for in general apprehensions the type carried overtones of evil incarnate, the type of the relentless and remorseless hunter not only of animals, but of men, and even of souls.  In the extreme, that character coincided with Sagittarius’ character as it had been in some traditions.  A treacherous constellation, against the raising of whose bow’s seamen were warned to remain in harbour ‘under cover’.

Shown (right) a crossbowman on a card dated to the early fifteenth century and probably made in Italy though found in an old chest, in Spain.

In my opinion, this figure was designed as allusion to Juan I (‘el Cazador’) of Aragon, an inveterate hunter of animals and persecutor of the Jews.  Because a Christian folk-legend (‘the wandering Jew’), saw parallels constantly made between  migratory birds and the supposedly transient  Jews, images of this time repeatedly connect the crossbowman to birds and often to specific metaphors for the Jews such as owls or red-headed cranes.  By the time that image was made, cards had been known to Italy for about forty years or so.  It has another astronomical reference, too, and one of great antiquity, but no need to pursue that now.

However, and again from Italy and from about the same time, a second theme is disseminated which associates the bowman, and  hunting, with health.

Imagery of that sort emerges in the context of the Tacuinum sanitatis, where the bowman (and in some cases, the crossbowman) is pictured under the heading ‘East Wind’ and associated with Aries, Taurus and Gemini.  Hunting with hounds is simply listed among healthful ‘activities’ and not in connection with any month in particular.

detail from a copy of the Tacuinum Sanitatis. (ÖNB Codex Vindobonensis, series nova 2644)

 

By the middle of the fifteenth century, and now in Germany, the crossbowman is envisaged in the form of a full-time mercenary (right), an Hungarian of Matthias’ Corvinus’ Black Army (Hungarian: Fekete sereg).

Once again, any link to the zodiac is either irrelevant to, or ancillary to the image and its intended use.

If we now add, to other reasons for saying that revisionist study is called for,  those items which become prominent only when the emblems are re-contextualised within their diagrams, we have the fact that ‘matches’ from Latin works have yet to be found for  tiered figures in ‘barrels’ like those on folio 70v, or for April creatures depicted in the way  Latin custom has “goat”, not “sheep”.  Ever more points at which the theoretical model fails to explain the evidence become apparent.

While an image such as that shown ( left) certainly suggests that if a Latin wished to bathe indoors, he did so in a tub – who didn’t?- it explains nothing of the reason the Voynich images are so differently drawn, show chiefly female figures, or why so many more hold ‘star-flowers’ in folio 70v than in any other.  Is ‘tub’ or ‘barrel’ the word realised in the Voynich images: that is, was it the concept given first enunciation in these folios?

Linguistic and graphic expression were two sides of a single coin in pre-modern times (and setting aside the literalism of the post 1440s).  Why should “March” be associated with those forms?

The maker surely knew; it is not beyond possiblity that we may come to know. Not though conjecture, speculation, hypothesising or imagining but by learning to see, and think, outside the frame of a post-industrial mindset. Historians are supposed to.

If. in adopting the month-names to describe the eleven diagrams, I err, it is at least an error for which the manuscript provides precedent.

 

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