(written August 2019)
I almost wish I’d kept a record of the Voynich meme-makers’ slogans throughout this past decade.
The latest example of meme-making is astounding, informing one that ‘the Voynich manuscript isn’t an art book’ and that ‘images are trivial; writing is serious’ – the sort of thing we find in the amateur attitudes of William Friedman in 1952. He seems scarcely to have attended to anything – including recommended reading – from the widely read professional, Professor Panofsky.
Here again, as with so much else in the heavily weed-seeded field of Voynich studies, very basic questions have to be asked, such as ‘Where did that idea come from? and ‘Why are so many intelligent people now repeating this – apparently without a moment’s pause for critical thought?’
So.. once again.. the revisionist has to hold the reins on another bolting theory. Energy it may have, but its motives and destination are not exactly helpful, and have an entirely internal rationale.
First question – what do those repeating the meme suppose is meant by the word ‘art book’? Do they mean ‘a book filled with drawings?’ and assume we’ll accept that all drawings are “art” in a grand sense? If they just mean ‘a book of drawings’ then it certainly is. More than 50% of the surface covered is covered by drawings.
So maybe it is an ‘art book’.
Or do they think ‘art book’ means a history of art?
If that is what they mean, their underlying assumptions are – simply – anachronistic. At the time our manuscript was made (setting aside the still open question of when its content was first composed), there was no ‘art history’ in the modern sense. What you have are histories of meaning. It is that meaning which had to be understood (well or badly) and then re-embodied in works by more recent painters, sculptors, weavers, woodworkers and so on. This need produced various practical ‘handbooks’ – things which both explained meaning and informed an artisan – say, a painter – how to ‘correctly’ present that meaning in what was supposed to be the classical manner.
So an ‘art book’ as a notebook made by an individual would include no less written text than a modern history of art.
The problem with that notion is, however, that the majority of images in the voynich manuscript are not drawings formed in the way western Europe produced drawings. That’s why it took more than a century’s debate to decide that the ‘green’ in the ladies’ sections denoted water and not e.g. air or amorphous ‘internal’ environment – as (for example) Newbold believed and explained in his letter asking help of Franciscan scholars.
Or are the meme-makers supposing that the Voynich manuscript is not an ‘art book’ of some other kind? We don’t know. The origin of a meme remains carefully anonymous and invisible, but once his little foal is set to grow into another wild, galloping loco-beast, he may well repeat it as ‘something no-one doubts and god help them if they do’.
But let’s ask the last question. If we consider the period, and adopt the still-unproven theory that all the content originated with Christians of Latin Europe in the fifteenth century (something I don’t for a minute believe the evidence permits), then there are several sorts of text we might classify as an ‘art book’. The manuals made and used by students of learning, included not only those or academic ‘students’ but handbooks for/by an artisans and secular ‘vade mecum’ made for the merchant-and-traveller. In both those last types, text might again be subordinate to the pictures but in any case their pictures should only be viewed as ornament when all other possibilities have been exhausted. Until the mid-fifteenth century at least – we are speaking of manuscripts made for Latin use, images should be approached as pictorial *text*, primarily intended to convey meaning, and not as a wysiwyg object-depiction.
So the meme about ‘it’s not an art book’ are not only fairly transparent efforts to ignore the preponderance of evidence in the primary text – Beinecke MS 408, but an effort to argue that we can dispense with the unreadable writing, and now also dispense with the pictures and rely entirely for our ideas about this manuscript on the hypothetical ‘histories’ which are thus built on sand and wishful thinking, for which a few bits and pieces are extracted from the original and used purely to adorn the romance so created.
In my experience of this manuscript’s study, I have not found that the best linguists wantonly impose wrong ideas on the imagery – they either admit their lack of skills in that area and concentrate on the text, or they make honest efforts to ‘read’ images whose historical origin and cultural style they do not know, but which they credit to some one or other of those hypothetical ‘histories’ created by enthusiasts and amateurs and – perhaps worst of all – professionals who imagine that competence in any field means competence in all. We saw that in O’Neill’s assumption that he could read the images in the plants sections, and in Brumbaugh’s failures in treating both the month-folios and the plant pictures.
The meme about the manuscript being ‘not an art book’ again, as ever, conveys no real information or any useful conclusion from some individual’s research.
It merely conveys an intimation that some others’ research, and those researchers, must be ignored by the ‘true believers’. They need no longer distinguish between fireworks of pure imagination about the images, or analytical and historical studies aimed at elucidating the meaning intended conveyed by the manuscript’s pictorial text.
It bears repeating that more than half the manuscript’s information is contained in line- -as-image, and less than half by line as written text.
We can’t even hear that meme as refutation of some articulated theory, so far as I know. Has anyone asserted that Beinecke MS 408 was an “art book” and defined their intention by using that term? If so, I’ve never seen it, though if such an argument has been made from evidence, I’ll happily read the research.
Altogether, we left only with a suspicion that whoever thought up the meme did so to push an agenda – viz. don’t listen to discussions about the images.
In terms of Europe’s history, however, you just don’t get texts with superficial ‘illustration’ apart from diagrams before the advent of printing. In Germany the earliest products of printing were instructional works for small children. Cicero’s de Oratore is the first text known to have been printed in Italy. Theories about the Voynich manuscript’s images being copied from German printed works are inherently anachronistic. But theorists often forget to check basic facts, such as dates or whether to suppose the images in the Voynich manuscript are ‘mere illustrations’ isn’t equally inappropriate.
I think that most Voynich writers realise that written text encodes speech, but I’ve noticed few who realise that the same must be said of pre-modern images.
Some represent encoded speech quite carefully, constituting one form of mnemonic image but more often constitute a ‘conversation’ between maker and contemporary audience, and given that a century’s effort has found no way to read the written text, it does not seem unreasonable to attend to the pictorial text rather than waving it away by assuming it meaningless, or purely an act of self expression. Both notions are anachronistic, the second idea being a definition of ‘modern art’. The key to pre-modern art, and even art of the Renaissance, is meaning. And whether you are talking about medieval western art or traditional art elsewhere, the point is that the maker could – and the viewer could expect to be given – detailed explanation of the work i n all its details, usually with literary sources (whether these were from oral or written tradition).
Since the intended audience for the Voynich manuscript, as indeed for images found in Latin medieval manuscripts, was not an audience of modern, secular, industrial-era urbanites, so the modern student must exert themselves learn and to compare how various peoples talked and thought about things which were then expressed in imagery using their own traditional visual ‘codes’.
The aim of Voynich research should not be to find bits which you can argue support your pet theory, but to try and understand what the original intended to say to its own audience. To do this accurately, one must recognise cues to characteristic ideas, beliefs, social attitudes and so on, and more importantly (because so often disregarded by Voynicheros), the techniques and conventions of visual language characteristic of a given time and people: how they used form, gesture, positioning, and even such things as choice of colour to convey meaning.
Like a written text, a pictorial text was intended to convey meaning. Meaning, not form is the key to rightly reading images such as these.
Perhaps readers would like to see how well-equipped they are to use the analytical approach so I append a specimen example for consideration. So that even a newly come amateur will not feel too much out of his or her depth, the example comes not from the difficult images in Beinecke MS 408, but from the western traditions of art. I’ve added a tailor-made guide to ‘method’ to show how to take the first steps in learning to analyse images from that ‘other country’ of the past.
Following that will be some few comments of my own, which no one is obliged to read.
What I’m hoping to do here is to show why the analytical method approaches a pictorial text more as a palaeographer approaches written text than the way a modern art critic might.
- List elements in the image (below) which you take to be meaningful and which you’d consider ornamental.
- Have you any thoughts about the dark crescent-shape painted below the top of the arch?
- The female figure is made to clutch the hand of the figure behind her. Why do you think that is? (you might think the reason compositional, meaningful, conventional or all three – but explain ..).
- Why should the black-shod figure be shown with one arm – and only one arm – covered by an extra-long sleeve?
- Would you say that the image is an original expression of Latin European culture, attitudes and beliefs, or not?
(Take your time. And there’s no obligation to compare your thoughts with my analytical commentary, below.)
Click on the word ‘Commentary’ to open it.
The principal theme here is a reminder that ‘the heavens’ may be studied in two ways, but only one is for ordinary humans to question, query or debate.
You see that this inhabited initial forms the letter as an upper and lower arch; the upper is meant to be read as a canopy – metaphorically pegged to the earth’s horizon – for the heavens are ‘stretched out as a tent’ (Ps.102:4; Is.40:22 etc.).
The open lattice to left and right signifies those ‘gates through which mankind cannot pass but through which stars emerge from below the horizon into view of earth and then sink below it.
Just under the top of the letter’s upper curve, about where a lamp might hang, you see the Pole star surrounded by a dark [=”not able to be seen by human eyes”] circumpolar boundary, of which only half is depicted.
Most medieval Christians still believed that sight was a result of the eye’s reaching out to grasp an object and so for the maker, and reader of this image, the invisible/dark limit spoke of a spiritual Heaven and its ‘ramparts’ – the boundary of the circumpolar region which they envisaged guarded by angels also invisible to mortal eyes as a rule. It is the circumpolar line itself which, being entirely conceptual, neither drawn nor mentioned in the scriptures was thus manifest but not visible. They also envisaged at a point above the visible Pole star a spiritual Throne – which term might carry different significance in different contexts, as I’ll explain in the next post.
What lay within the ‘tent’ as vault of the visible heavens and its stars was all that was permitted to be ‘grasped’ by human eye and mind – that is, the items about which they might indulge in study, speculation, debate and other forms of intellectual enquiry .. within limits.
Again, the red background alludes to the earth as the proper domain of human kind, ‘children of Adam’. (the word Adam is derived from the word for ‘red earth’).
That we are to consider the difference between the earthly, permitted learning and what is not for humans to speculate about is represented by use of the ‘winding’ vine element – ‘the vineyard of the text’ to use the phrase Ivan Illich adopted as the title for one of his books (one I’d recommend, though its every line is not to be treated as gospel).
Beyond the limit of that arch which sets the limit of mundane, secular knowledge the ‘vine’ appears again, now painted in white. It appears as ‘right’ opposed to ‘left’ and ‘upper’ opposed to ‘lower’. The message here, for all four, is that while some persons may be granted wisdom and knowledge greater than earthly knowledge, it cannot be acquired – or is forbidden to be acquired – by human reason. It is matter ordained as beyond the human domain, and is not to be debated or investigated.
The vine motif is not always used to mean ‘learning, but here it reminds the viewer that enquiring into ‘the ways of heaven’ is of two sorts; the earthly and the spiritual/demonic. Decisions over what was good and what was evil ‘occulted/occult’ knowledge was a matter for the eyes of faith; to be decided by the words of Christ and those of his appointed representatives. (This is how the medieval west of that time saw the situation, you understand).
This is why the allegorical female figure points to the Pole Star while preventing the person behind from raising his hand against heaven. Or, as children are still told, ‘it’s rude to point’.
.The letters in the right margin spell ‘Vidam’ ( a form that does not occur in classical Latin) and that word unites the elements in the picture proper and serves as an announcement of the theme elaborated within it.
And so too, the disposition of the vine motif exterior to the letter tells us that what is obscure or hidden (occult/occulted) may be righteous religious mystery or wicked/heretical (Lat. sinister) knowledge – only the church can decide.
That most people in medieval Latin Europe really did accept this division between permissible and impermissible learning wasn’t necessarily a good thing, of course, from our point of view today, but it had its good points. It sometimes allowed folk-practices to survive which we’d immediately describe as pre-Christian and pagan. It certainly saved the life of a frightfully annoying woman named Margery Kemp. One on occasion her fellow-pilgrims, driven beyond endurance by Marjorie’s behaviour, were united in determining to “brun her for a witch”. So Marjorie fled to the local bishop who, simply by pronouncing her behaviour not sinister but proof of religious sensibility, saved her life. The difference between the good and the evil in ‘occulted’ knowledge was a matter for theology, not personal or group- judgement.
The oldest rule had it that, in the western church, none save the elected head (the Pope) in person might adjudicate in cases of alleged heresy. That rule saved Francis of Assisi from being declared a heretic and papal protection was long the chief and best protection of the Jews in Latin Europe – if the election had put a decent man in Peter’s chair. When the secular authorities began involving themselves in questions of heresy, and when the old rule was set aside and agencies delegated – such as the Inquisition – or when the great splitting of western Christianity occurred, mass burnings followed both within and without the older church. Burning people had been (as Marjorie’s case illustrates well) the equivalent of rabble-driven lynching; it was a practice much older than western Christianity.
But I hope this will show why one has to consider not only form, but informing thought in order to read an image as the maker expected it to be read in the days before printing.
What you find so often in Voynich writings is a superficial definition of an image in terms of one item as ‘object’ and extreme literalism follow in the subjective response.
In this case, the ‘object’ might be the female figure and a person might say, ‘Oh wow, they had female teachers of astronomy’ or, from some theory about magic assert that the same figure was meant for a witch. They might produce all sorts of comparative pictures, but they’d be pictures of teachers or of witches. You’d be treated to many instances of where red and blue was a ‘witchy’ combination and so forth. The subject would be not the manuscript in question but a theory (in the sense of a fiction) and its elaboration.
Others, a little better acquainted with medieval manuscripts might again define the entire image in terms of that same single element as ‘object’ but now call it ‘Astronomia’ and run a data-base search under ‘Astronomia’ which they’d then provide with commentary arguing that the nearest ‘astronomia’ to the target proves support for their theoretical provenance for the first manuscript. Expositions of that sort tend to show a pre-emptive bias in definition of the image, in parameters for comparisons offered, and a commentary only loosely related to the image or manuscript at issue.
Or again, a person might instantly turn to hunting copies of the written text found adjacent to the image, re-define the image in those terms and, ignoring it thereafter, concentrate on tracking other copies of that written text, in the hope of again supporting some theory about where the first manuscript was made.
In this case, the last method would be of no help, because the accompanying text comes from a Greek work that had been composed a thousand years earlier in a different environment altogether and in a different language, having been translated into several languages, transmitted across cultural and historical generations with the image in question only adorning that text here.
It would not target the manuscript in question because the manuscript is not only a copy of the text illuminated by this image; it contains parts from a variety of sources.
On the other hand, the palaeographer, like the forensic type of iconological analyst would agree is that the image and associated script evince a Latin (western Christian) character expressive of the French style during the early 14thC.
Once you have appropriate historical and cultural parameters, seeking comparisons is more likely to yield valid results. One might, for example, read histories of the time to see what sort of new learning might have raised this issue of permitted enquiry in relation to studies of the stars. Since the message of the image is of strongly conservative Christianity, so the text is more likely than not to be one from a doubtful (i.e. non Latin) origin, but accepted into the Latin curriculum by the early fourteenth century. We find the same, cautionary and salutary, message embodied in an illustration brought to notice by Ellie Velinska, and mentioned in an earlier post in this series.
This would limit the search quite satisfactorily and one might even discover that the manuscript in question is Burney MS 275. It is always better to advance by increasing what you know than by building speculation on speculation.
Holding library’s description of Burney MS 275.
I almost forgot to say that the figure with the black shoe is disapproved of. He is shown transgressing the limit – trespassing – which is how sinning was perceived in Latin Christianity. His having one sleeve exceedingly long derives from the Arab tradition, where it normally describes the boy at the mast-head. Here, I think, it is used as allusion to a specific tradition of non-Ptolemaic astronomical learning, apparently disapproved of by theologians in early fourteenth century France but of considerable interest in connection with Beinecke MS 408.
The above notes are by the present author.
‘Art history’ – in the modern sense didn’t exist in western Europe when the Voynich manuscript was made. Vitruvius’ great treatise on classical architecture existed in a manuscript taken from St.Gall by Bracciolini in 1415. The text was printed by Alberti in 1450 but an illustrated version was first produced by Cesare Cesariano in 1521.