What magic – where magic? 3b: historical consciousness.

Two previous posts.

To properly explain why William Friedman felt no constraint against entertaining about this manuscript ideas proper to the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries,  despite  general consensus among the best qualified individuals that it presented as proper to the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, I must to turn to what Erwin Panofsky once described as ‘historical consciousness’.

Lack of that particular form of awareness does much to explain why so many impossible, ill-founded and occasionally ridiculous ‘historical’ scenarios  have been, and continue to be, presented to the public. It also explains something of what has been called ‘the Voynich groundhog day’ where some work, or discovery by a past researcher is never read and absorbed before another newcomer sets off along the same line of enquiry.. and later another .. and then another..

Tracking the various ‘Voynich doctrines’ back to their root is hampered by the poor standards observed in much of the study’s history – or more exactly in its purported ‘histories’.  Documentation has been generally lamentable in substance, even when meticulous in form and has taken for its model, most often, Wilfrid’s yarn-spinning style. There are of course exceptions, but not many. The most valuable contributions have been based on clear observation, something which itself requires a degree of that same particular kind of awareness.

A lax approach to testing and checking what has earlier been said is certainly responsible for the survival of many ‘voynich doctrines’. The difficulty has been much increased in recent years by circulation of numerous brainless ‘memes’ which work against clarity in our understanding of how the study has unrolled. A particularly brainless meme ran that ‘to cite precedents is unnecessary’. I have no idea – of course – who first thought it up, but I had heard of it first from Rene Zandbergen.

Formal oversight, too, has often been lamentable when Voynich-related papers or books been submitted for publication.

If O’Neill’s ‘sunflower/Columbus’ paper (1944) had been submitted to a  journal of botanical science, or of American history, I doubt it would ever have appeared in print.

Technical editors would want it furnished with the citation of any precedents, and of his sources.  (Did he ever read accounts of Columbus’ voyages and what they brought back to Europe?)  The names of those six alleged supporters for his ideas would have been published, even if in a footnote, or printed as initials. A scientific publisher would normally have the material peer-reviewed before it went into print. In a case like O’Neill’s reviewers should include someone competent to confirm or deny his first premise – his assertion that Columbus brought sunflowers from the new world.  But none of that happened so far as I can discover. O’Neill’s paper was not only passed for publication as it was, but continued to be ‘passed’ in one way and another between 1944 and 2018,when I was astonished to find that no-one had bothered to check the grounds for any part of his paper.  So then, my research question being: ‘Is this basic premise factual?’, the conclusion I reached after looking into the problem was (short answer) ‘No, the Columbus theory is baseless’.  The long answer is here.

Speaking of O’Neill might be a good moment to let readers have a first glimpse of Robert Brumbaugh’s self-confident style.

“One strand of the [Voynich manuscript] case did unravel. A group of botanists, led by Hugh O’Neill, agreed in identifying four of the plants in the Voynich drawings – two from the first and two from the fourth section – as having first been brought to Europe in 1493. This established the date of composition as the sixteenth century, not the thirteenth. And various other minor illustration details suggested the same attribution. (So, of course, had the suspected role of Kelley and Dee.) 

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich Cipher Manuscript: a current report’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 61, No.3/4 (April 1987) pp. 92-95. (p.94).

I can’t resist quoting Samuel Clemens here  – and it is to the point:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens)

Janick Tucker coverWhen, in about 2018, Tucker and Janick presented their effort to, as they say,  prove O’Neill’s notion correct, it looks as if their press also omitted peer-review.  Noone competent to assess (a) the Columban documents (b) the history of botanical illustration or at the very least (c) the claimed language –  Nahatl would have let it pass.

I’m at one with Thony Christie about this apparent decline in oversight:

I’ve been turning again to Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American because he was one of the very, very few who did ask the normal, sane, basic research questions – the same questions which can be asked today of any supposedly historical narrative for the Voynich manuscript.

Thorndike  asked .. What proof exists to permit the assertion?  What reason is there for suggesting thus-or-so?  Where is the evidence which led to this idea’s being formed in the first place?  Have you put it to the test against the corpus of primary evidence and secondary scholarship for medieval history and manuscripts? Putting something to the test does not mean hunting, within the limits set by the theory, for items which can be claimed as support for it.  To test a theory means to stress-test it by first presuming you are wrong – taking on the role of devil’s advocate.

The form of Wilfrid’s paper, its lack of any mention of sources or historical documents, and his inflating beyond reason the third-hand, unsupported ‘Rudolf’ rumour made me wonder whether his historical awareness had been enough to date and place the manuscript.  I decided to check that, too. If you know of any prior effort, please leave a comment so that I can do the right thing and acknowledge it as precedent.

It occurred to me that Wilfrid might have gone to the British Library when he arrived in England with the manuscript, and asked an opinion on it from his friend, mentor and future sponsor, Robert Garnett.*  If it were Garnett who had pronounced the manuscript English in appearance and appropriate for the thirteenth century or perhaps for the ‘1300s’ as per the article in Scientific American, then we might place more weight on that opinion.  Not for our present manuscript, which is certainly early 15thC, but for its nearest exemplars.

*I am indebted to Jackie Speel for the information that Garnett was one of the persons who served as guarantor in Wilfrid’s application for British citizenship. Another signatory was, as Speel says, a member of the  British Museum.

The research turned up a nice example.

Wilfrid had sold a certain item to an American collector named Robert Garrett, and apparently some suspicion about it arose later, for one of Morey’s students decided to subject the document to a dissection in the style that Morey advocated and which still informs the organisation of the Index of Christian Art.[now often called the ‘Index of Medieval Art’ though, to quote the Getty Museum, it still “documents primarily medieval  art from early apostolic times to approximately 1400 AD”]   Panofsky did not think so well of Morey’s approach but the Index itself thinks well of Panofsky.

Morey’s student, keen-eyed and suspicious, produced an excruciatingly detailed report, the upshot of which was –  Wilfrid’s provenance and description had been correct.

  • Holmes Van Mater Dennis, 3rd, ‘The Garrett Manuscript of Marcanova’, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, Vol. 6 (1927), pp. 113-126

I concluded that Wilfrid was competent at his job, but only within the limits of his job.  He was no historian.   As far as I could discover Wilfrid’s only Voynich ‘research’ was a biographical dictionary and an over-coloured and over-imaginative historical novel about Rudolf’s court.  Otherwise, he mainly echoes Newbold who – tellingly – never suggested that so inferior a manuscript would be offered to an emperor, but imagined it a gift for Rudolf’s gardener-pharmacist, which would be a suitable diplomatic gesture for those times.

The point here is that very few of those who, since 1912, have offered ‘historical’ scenarios for the Voynich manuscript or who have tried to interpret its drawings have shown evidence of what Panofsky once described as ‘historical consciousness.’

I quoted the next paragraph some time ago on the difficulty, in general, of reading images from another era. It is also a succinct criticism of Morey’s approach, and of the mindset informing his Index of Christian Art – a source to which some  present-day Voynicheros are clearly much indebted. Panofsky wrote:

“He would also have needed to bring to mind identical comparable cases and thus to have been aware of changes in the possibilities of spatial expression over the period. In short, he would have to have modeled his description not on the immediate perception of a given object within the picture but on the knowledge of general principles of depiction, that include an understanding of style which only an historical consciousness could have provided.”

Developing a more acute historical consciousness should help the student recognise differences between claimed ‘matches’ for images in Beinecke MS 408 and to realise what significance might be signalled by those differences – which are sometimes apparently minor differences –  that occur between the products of one historical (and cultural) environment against another.  But also, and quite as importantly, historical consciousness serves to keep us aware of where earlier writers’ ‘blind spots’ –  and our own – may be distorting perception of the object.


Here’s an exercise. Skip it if you like. The new ‘block editor’ at wordpress doesn’t seem to have a ‘collapsed text’ option.

The following pairing I’ve drawn from the corpus of western Christian iconography, since few readers will then have difficulty in [A] deciding which of the two is meant for a queen of heaven and which for an earthly monarch.

Jadwiga and Mary

Now [B] go back and consider the two images more carefully to isolate exactly which  details led you to form that opinion – as I’m sure you did almost without conscious effort.  Next [C] make a list of points at which the two images appear ‘the same”. Then notice how many fewer and less prominent were those details which you  recognised  as signals of different intention.

Work out just how it was that you did recognise a different significance for (e.g.) the different forms of crown, or the different quality of the neck-veils, or of the colour of the background provided each figure’s head.   Now consider  [D] how you might explain those items convincingly to someone who has had no previous exposure to Europe’s Christian traditions and who protests that there is no substantive difference between the two images –  who might argue that even the two faces are alike and that the two pictures are also (as indeed they are) near-contemporary with one another.  Not as easy to explain as you might think, is it ?- because your historical consciousness in regard to western iconological conventions – style – is not theirs. And the other person might, quite literally, be unable to see what you’re talking about.  (As I said in the previous post, it isn’t the ‘compare’ but the ‘contrast’ phase that normally provides the most useful information about an artefact).

Within twentieth- and twenty-first century society, various individuals may have greater or less historical consciousness in general,  but in addition the simple ability to see what is on the page can differ widely been one individual and another. Not all the posited ‘comparisons’ for items in Beinecke MS 408 are a poor as this one, but far too many have been. And have been accepted without demur.

containers plate7 Sherwoods new pages

“…he would have to have modeled his description not on the immediate perception of a given object within the picture but on the knowledge of general principles of depiction, that include an understanding of style which only an historical consciousness could have provided.

Of course, by ‘historical consciousness’ Panofsky assumed not only an awareness of the past but a depth of concerted and continuing study of a period’s informing attitudes, thought and practices.

This is an area particularly difficult for modern, urban, secular people approaching medieval texts and imagery. Many cannot set aside attitudes which are now quite usual, but which were all but unthought-of during the medieval centuries.  There’s a reluctance to read such things as theology or devotional literature, to read the content of a breviary or of legal cases.   It is difficult to enter into the mind of someone whose whole environment, culture and history was an inseparable unity of religious with secular. The man whose father worked the fields, or whose father led armies, might come together as  monks in a monastery. The local inn might be called ‘Mary’s gate’ and no-one would ask, ‘Mary who?’ At a king’s coronation or a village fete, the songs would allude to Christian motifs and themes, and might be songs sung since the early centuries AD. Christianity was western European ‘Latin’ culture.  No-one who is reluctant today to read the things medieval people read or talked about, and to read about how they saw the world can hope to appreciate the temper of the times and how pictures produced from that environment were understood in their day.

At the same time, the modern revisionist must in fairness apply similar standards when asking  why William Friedman was able to drift so easily beyond that supposedly ‘certain’ dating of the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, into the sixteenth and seventeenth, or how he could apparently  maintaine simultaneously the ‘Bacon’ possibility and a particular  ‘seventeenth century’ possibility.

The Friedmans were not historians, or historians of art, or of palaeography. The sort of popular history written in their time was still unaware of  subjects we now take for granted, such as economic history, social history, women’s history, or even the history of technology. Economic history was a branch of commercial studies, for example, and a conception of national boundaries had not yet been recognised as inappropriate for the reality of the medieval centuries.

Medieval history itself was still in its early years as a separate discipline.  America’s first journal of medieval art would not appear until the 1970s.* Occasionally even now  publications emerge with such titles as  ‘Art of the medieval centuries’ but contain nothing in them but Christian art of England, Germany and France.  So too with Morey’s Index, which was exclusively composed of Christian imagery during his lifetime and has only recently included images from other sources, and changed its name to the ‘Index of Medieval Art’.

  • *Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951),Vol. 10, No. 2 (Feb., 1916), pp. 143-144.

In researching a medieval text, it is essential to read widely in contemporary documents, not least because the differences between then and now include different sensitivities, and in consideration of the modern reader’s feelings, secondary and popular texts, like older catalogues, regularly omit delicate and unpleasant matter.

Things that were openly spoken and written about in past times, and embodied in pictures of those times, are not always explained, or are treated superficially in works produced for the general reader.  This problem is not relevant to the Voynich manuscript’s images themselves, but it is very relevant indeed when medieval Christian images are selected and presented as ‘similar’ or as a theoretical explanation for what is in the manuscript.

For that reason, I’ll give an example. I’m sorry I can’t put it behind an ‘collapsed text’ arrow, but I apologise in advance for any disquiet it may cause.

Certain strands of imagery that gained prominence in Europe during the fourteenth- and fifteenth centuries, such as those focused on the wounds and instruments associated with the ‘passion of Christ’, carry quite  a horrible sub-text, for they were intended to pick up, echo and magnify certain  themes then being emphasised by certain preaching groups who, as they went from town to town, addressed crowds in public spaces – often producing those ‘passion’ images literally and not just verbally.

In some cases the aim was not only to justify but to positively incite  violent attacks against Europe’s Jewish population. They used formal training in rhetoric – oratory – to  stir up personal emotion – turning a crowd into a mob – and to keep active the desire for revenge that had always made the days before easter the most dangerous time of year for European Jews.

Obvious examples are the sudden increase in representations of  implements of torture, and of Christ’s wounds as a separate device from images of the Christ himself. These suggested that in torturing and wounding the Jews, it was justice of the  ‘eye for an eye’ type’ they were the ‘weapons of protection’ for the Christian faith, which believers held had been won by Christ’s suffering and death.    But there were less obvious polemical forms that those.

An older theological position was that the Jews should be protected by a king, or a Pope, because the Jews were the first (the head) of God’s chosen peoples –  Christians considering themselves the second. Thus, the image of Judith de-capitating Holofernes is one that suddenly becomes more prevalent and more graphically bloody during the time of the worst oppression of the Jews in the fifteenth century and that figure would become a major theme in late Renaissance and Baroque German art.

Nuremberg_chronicles_f_69r_2By the end of the Baroque period, many painters had come to regard that subject as no more than an interesting theme for religious painting, but in the fifteenth century the message conveyed had echoed the verbal images employed by the religious preachers – some, to the shame of their order, being Franciscans – and in Italy, Germany and France of that time, the image was very plainly meant to suggest a Biblical justification for defending what Europe then envisaged as its religio-cultural ‘purity’.

Note- One very interesting aspect of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is that apart from some late-added marginalia, it contains none of the signs of religious prejudice nor of religious preference. For the long centuries when identity was inextricable from religious membership, whether in Europe or in Islam, Byzantium or even in India, this is most remarkable. A message of “we’re the good guys” is almost universal feature in the older traditions of art – as indeed it remains in public art today – but I cannot discern it in any of the Voynich manuscript’s images.

Another aspect of this intense escalation was a new use of ellipsis.  We have seen this in Oresme where he ceases to speak directly of Jews or of Muslims as he had earlier done, and comes to speak only of the  categories to which they are assigned, as  ‘the astrologers’ or the ‘diviners’ and so on.  The point should be made now because the same habit is found as late as the seventeenth century throughout much of Europe and may explain why, when an Italian named Ulisse Aldrovandi made a collection of herbals having unusual-looking pictures, he described them awkwardly as ‘herbals of the alchemists’ – not, as is so often said in recent Voynich writings as “alchemical herbals.” On the last point see the paradoxically-entitled article:

Philip Neal, ‘Alchemical herbals

My digressions and examples made this post longer than I meant it to be, so the near the rest will have to wait for Part (c).

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