O’Donovan notes #7 – Range is Balance (Pt 1).

c.4000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Voynich studies has seen a continual stream of imaginative quasi-historical storylines invented for the manuscript since 1912 when Wilfrid began trying to re-sell it.

Though each of those narratives was contradicted by the next, by historical fact, and by the primary document itself, nearly all have been thought plausible by a larger or smaller band of believers.

To show how this curious situation, which continues to this day, is due to a now-habitual “Voynich method”, I built that same method into the studies of two figures from folio 85r.

What I wanted to demonstrate was that any theorist feeling enthused about some idea, and adopting that idea in advance of any actual investigation will be biased from the outset, re-defining ‘good’ information to mean information they think lends their idea greater credibility and ‘bad’ research as work whose conclusions oppose their theory.

Selecting the former while constantly blanking the latter inevitably results, of course, in that writer reaching a conclusion consistent with their expectations but built on so narrow and biased a range of data that it cannot do other than misrepresent the content in this manuscript.

Far from being the first to look critically at their own ideas, promoters of Voynich storylines have proven, from 1912 to 2022, the most easily misled believer in their audience. It’s not due to personality; the pattern shows the problem a flawed ‘Voynich method’ so doggedly maintained that against it even the primary document protests in vain.

So now, to specifics.

In treating the female figure I adopted the traditionalists’ habit of beginning as if I just *knew* what the conclusion of research would be before starting to do that research. In effect, I was attempting to give an air of credibility to an idea, where the analyst aims at making a balanced assessment of the drawing and the available evidence.

By the end of that post, therefore, I had adorned that first ‘idea’ with official-looking quotes which – without actually presenting any case – suggested to readers that this drawing could only be a product of my arbitrarily-selected region, nationality and period. That is, late twelfth-century England

If you re-read the post Note #6i (cont.) with a properly critical eye, I hope you’ll notice how fairly obvious questions were slid-over or waved aside. Such as:

  • What do you mean by ‘England’? Define ‘England’ in terms of geography and of time.
  • Apart from England, where do we find evidence of Scandinavian-influenced dress surviving, and over what sort of temporal range?

As I’ve mentioned before, most questions aiming at an analytical-critical study of images are of the ‘where-and-when’ as well as the ‘why’ kind.

The habit of imagining that what is attested in one time and place can exist at no other time or place is absolutely characteristic of Voynich theory-narratives and another habit persisting throughout the study ever since 1912. The more traditionalist the theorist, the more you can expect their narrative riddled with that notion. It is the whole foundation for some of the most publicised Voynich narratives today.

What should have been done, in the first of my two studies, was not to chase evidence likely to persuade others to believe a ‘London’ theory, but to ask questions framed in terms of range e.g:

  • Over what range – in terms of culture, and time and geographic regions – do we find evidence of women wearing clothing of such a kind?

And the researcher must be prepared for disappointment as well as satisfaction; the results of research may be unexpected; they may show that the sought-for information has not survived the passage of time.

Restoring the Balance.

Not all the omissions and errors produced by that ‘Voynich method’ can be balanced out by this one post, but I’ll do what I can as briefly as I can.

Questions of influence.

Linguistic, political and cultural influences are three distinct factors in historical studies as in the study of artefacts.

Creators of Voynich storylines habitually treat the three as synonymous, though it takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that .a speaker of English may wear French fashions; that you may learn to speak one language and later speak one or more others; that territory now part of France (for example) may have been dominated, at different times, by the mores of Scandinavia, of England, of Spain, and/or of the Papacy. Linguistic, cultural and political influences are not one and the same.

It will be convenient to use a few maps and quoted passages to illustrate the changing patterns of influence in the far west from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries. Unless otherwise stated, the maps are from wiki media.

TENTH CENTURY

In 911 AD.. the French King, Charles the Simple, offered land to Rollo in exchange for his loyalty to the king of West Francia…

That Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte granted Rollo and his soldiers all the land between the river Epte and the sea “in freehold and good money”. It also granted him Brittany “for his livelihood.”

That was the origin of the Duchy of Normandy. of which Rollo was the first Duke.

The initial grant was extended by further grants and Rollo’s descendants created the area as coherent political entity during the course of the 10th century.

As late as the early 11th century Normandy still retained political and economic connections with Scandinavia and Scandinavian settlers in Britain and Ireland.

edited from an entry on the ‘Viking Archaeology’ website.

By late in the 10th century, before William’s conquest of England, the situation was as shown below, with the French king’s domain here coloured blue, and Normandy (Normandie) and Brittany (Bretagne) having strong historical links to Scandinavia. At this time Calais belonged to Flanders.

ELEVENTH CENTURY

The lands granted Rollo are now within the rights of William, conqueror of England.

Territories of William I of England, including dependency of Brittany

Replying to “What language did the Duke of Normandy speak in 1066? ..” Stephen Tempest replied to another member of Quora:

Norman French. This was a dialect of French that was similar to, but not identical with, the French spoken in Paris.

A notable difference is that Norman French had several words beginning with W- which in standard French start with Gu- instead.

The obvious example is the name of the Duke of Normandy himself: in Parisian French it would be Guillaume, but he used the name Willaume, Another example: the word ‘guerre’ in standard French was ‘werre’ in Norman French, and became ‘war’ in English.

Norman French also had several loan-words from Norse, which were not found in standard French. These included the dialect words for ‘sand-dune’ (mielle in Norman, dune in French) and ‘small island’ (hommet in Norman, îlot in French).

To this evidence of Scandinavian viking influence in the west we must add place-names. I’ll take Normandy as the sample:

A common place name ending in parts of Normandy is –tot, from the Norse word tóft, meaning the place of a farm. In modern Icelandic we have the word tóft, which is used for the visible ruins of a farm structure, but is also known as a homestead name. There are at least 589 places in Normandy which end with suffix tot. Another particularly common is the suffix -londe with 269 places ending with the -londe or -lont suffix from the Norse word lund, which translates as clearing. There are several places with the lundur ending in Iceland, including Bjarkarlundur in the South Westfjords.

Place names with Norse roots are most common near the coast and along the river Seine.

Other common Norman place names of Scandinavian origin are –hogue from the Norse haug, meaning hill or mound (more than 100 examples) and –dalle from dal, meaning valley (over 70 examples).

from an article in Iceland magazine (Nov. 19th., 2015)

So, altogether, Normandy is one region where we might expect some lingering influence from earlier Scandinavian populations.

Movements of people, and areas where multiculturalism is attested are also relevant and since we’re now looking at both sides of the Channel, it’s important to take note of lands that were not subject to the French king, especially ecclesiastical domains, because they attracted displaced persons. For example, when Edward I of England expelled all Jews in 1290, some sought protection there.

LATE 12th – early 13th CENTURIES

The map above is not quite accurate. By 1204, Montpellier – for example – had become part of the kingdom of Aragon.

From even so much information, it becomes clear that the geographic range in which we might find that combination of influences earlier described is not limited to Scandinavia, London and the Danelaw – or even Ireland and the western Isles – but should also consider the Channel’s southern shore – at the very least along the coast between Flanders and Cap de la Hague.

It is also within the period between the 11th-13th centuries that we must place the flourishing of Flanders cloth industry. A good basic outline here. Take note of the role played by both Genoa and Venice.

Within that coast, matters connected to the Voynich calendar make England’s possession of Calais, in Picard* country, important.

The term “Picardy” was first used in the early 13th century, during which time the name applied to all lands where the Picard language was spoken including territories from Paris to the Netherlands. In the Latin Quarter of Paris, people identified a “Picard Nation” (Nation Picarde) of students at Sorbonne University, most of whom actually came from Flanders.

‘Picardy’, Encyclopaedia Britannica

For two hundred years – that is from a hundred years before until more than a hundred years after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was made, Calais was not under English occupation, but was an English possession such as Gibraltar is today – as the city’s local historian, Philippe Cassez, reminded Nicholas Montard.

Within the region we may describe as Picard country, Calais was English territory from 1346 until 1558.

The city was made ‘English’ in the strictest sense in 1346 by the expulsion of its inhabitants, a matter of some sensitivity today, and a good example of why using just a single source or single utterance from an ‘expert’ is very poor practice.

The wiki article ‘Pas-de-Calais’ in English is no more than a translation of the French article, the latter written by someone evidently so patriotic that their account of the region’s history ‘blanks’ those two centuries of English possession.

Another scholar, attempting to minimise the awkward facts of Edward’s behaviour on taking Calais, writes this:

… some of the French were expelled and English settlement was deliberately encouraged. Thenceforward, the town’s officials, garrison, and merchants were almost exclusively drawn from the [English] homeland. Its strategic significance was as both an outer defence for England and a base for campaigns into France… It was heavily defended, often housing 1,000 troops alongside a civilian population of c.5,000. It also played a key role as the staple through which all exported wool had to be directed. As a result, its company of merchants became increasingly powerful in the government and financing of the town.

Ann Curry, in The Oxford Companion to British History.

I’m focusing on regions where we can posit a lingering Scandinavian influence together with English influence and a textile-industry because I maintain that the informing words for the female figure on folio 85r are reflected in the utterance given the NNE wind in Walters 73 and that the figure is designed to convey an habitual association of ‘clout’ with ‘cloud’. My post ‘Understanding the Woman’ was intended to illustrate the limits and bias of the conclusion-before-research method now habitual for Voynich writings and objectively so odd. My aim was not to invent information or misinterpret the figure’s meaning.

A third site shows less restraint in speaking of Edward and fails to appreciate that medieval attitudes won’t be those of a modern person, but does mention that in medieval Calais more than one language was spoken.

We may suggest that as well as English and Flemish Picard and Chtimi might have been heard in its streets:

Although he had spared the citizens’ lives, Edward evacuated [sic] the city and populated it with English people. Calais was used as a ‘staple’ that is a warehousing town for the distribution of wool exports and a means of collecting taxes levied on wool. Calais was thought of [sic] as part of England and even [sic] sent representatives to the House of Commons. …

Historically part of Flanders, the Pale was bilingual: English and Flemish were commonly spoken

Ward’s Book of Days. The author’s contact address begins ‘engliteessays’. 🙂

Now, while one ‘evacuates’ a population from care for its welfare, the fact is that the French were not ‘evacuated’ but expelled and there is no evidence at all that Edward felt any concern for their welfare. Nor (as we’ve seen) was Calais ‘thought of’ as part of England; it was part of the English domains. The author seems to imagine there was something unusually gracious about the fact that in English Calais, the English were entitled to representation in the house of commons.

These things are why I would not use any one of those three sources as an only source: range is balance.

Another glance at the linguistic divisions. This map per Andrew Oh-Willeke‘s blogpost (July 25th., 2019) where details of the original source are as given.

FOURTEENTH TO EARLY 15TH CENTURIES

England with Burgundy – 1339-1415

1339-1415 AD

1426 AD

1426 AD

So – that was the situation for people across this region before and during the time when the Voynich manuscript’s vellum was being made, and probably inscribed- though where that happened is still unknown.

Since the diagram on folio 85r (part) uses graphic conventions which are very nearly – if not entirely- consistent with those of Latin Europe, it seems reasonable to begin re-considering the woman’s dress within those areas on both sides of the English channel where Scandinavian settlements co-incide with the later Norman and Norman-French, not least because aspects of the Voynich calendar also direct us to that region. I’ll touch on those calendar matters later in this post.

Traditional labourer’s costume.

Here we meet a problem. The sort of people who commissioned illuminated manuscripts in medieval Europe weren’t interested in what labourers wore at work, and not for centuries later would it become fashionable to romanticise and ethnograph-ise rural ways and clothing.

The illustration (left) shows a reaper in a version of court costume, with a foreign-looking hat. Even exceptions to the rule, such as the representation of labourers in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, generally show peasants well fed, shod, and dressed with not an apron in sight before Colomb’s contribution (e.g. to the calendar’s ‘September’).

It is therefore unrealistic to expect (though one may hope) that any grand manuscript produced around the time the Voynich quires were inscribed will include a reliable portrait of the costume worn by members of the labouring class.

Sadly, we can’t rely either on what is now classified as a region’s traditional costume. The later romanticism which created the hideous Gothic Revival style in architecture, and saw the invention of hundreds of allegedly Scottish tartans by the woolen mills of Bradford also informs the choices made when a regional folk-costume was being defined.

From the late eighteenth century, but especially during the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, urbanites armed with sketch-pads – and then with cameras – began travelling through western Europe recording what they imagined was regional and national dress. Some were doing this to assist fashion-houses get new ideas; others looking for quaint images to issue as post-cards. Others again, infected with post-Napoleonic national pride, formed clubs dedicated to preserving their ‘ancient’ rural traditions. Mayors and town worthies, on seeing the books and pictures, promoted one form of local costume as definitive for their region.

What such collectors and officials often failed to notice was that, faced with having their portraits made, the country people hadn’t worn their everyday clothes but their best ‘Sunday-go-to-meeting’ wear and finery of a kind never worn but at weddings, funerals and days of high holiday.

Most costumes today described as regional or national dress are of that kind. In Germany, the opposite happened. Leather shorts once widely worn in medieval Europe as hard-wearing workday clothes came to be imagined, in societies formed in Munich and other cities, a ‘festival’ costume unique to Bavaria.

All of which means, for us, that attempting to discover where, and over what area, some form of traditional Scandinavian costume survived to inform the Voynich drawing is very difficult indeed. But one can try.

If this project were one undertaken professionally, I’d begin by making an appointment with conservators in a Museum having a section dedicated to the history of costume. But experience shows that even the opinion of someone from the Getty will be howled down and decreed ‘off-topic’ in Voynich arenas if it opposes a currently-popular traditionalist narrative.

WIDER PARAMETERS.

Since we know that Scandinavian, Norman- English and French influence affected the southern coast of the English channel from Flanders to the Cap de la Hague, we might begin there.

Picardy (political region).

Described as Picard dress, that on the right is associated specifically with Calais in works produced after 1850. Evidently the wearer might choose the long apron or the short, the elaborate headdress or the worker’s cap. Neither wears brooches.

Normandy

At some time before the seventeenth century, Normandy’s women adopted the shawl, and even the poorest now wore some version of it with working costume, as with more formal dress. What they wore in medieval times is uncertain.

Brittany

Gaugin painted these Breton girls in 1888.

And from no-where near the Channel, but from Bresse in Burgundy, we have these two spinning women photographed for a postcard printed in the early decades of the twentieth century, possibly after the first World War..

for the whole image see http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48http://www.bijouxregionaux.fr/fr/contenu.php?idcontenu=48

The costume on the right evokes the style of Scandinavian dress in the viking age, but is not closely similar to the drawing we’re investigating. The spinning woman to the right isn’t wearing a full apron, but a bodice and waist-apron. Our drawing doesn’t include the typically Scandinavian strings of beads or chain, where the later costume does. And while the older spinning woman certainly wears a round brooch, the younger is wearing a cameo or photograph hanging from a black ribbon.

What the photograph does indicate is that it was possible to find surviving over more than nineteen hundred years and a distance of more than a thousand kilometers, remnants of the old Scandinavian customs. That they should survive in Burgundy is not unreasonable. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica says:

“The Burgundians were a Scandinavian people whose original homeland lay on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea, where the island of Bornholm (Burgundarholm in the Middle Ages) still bears their name. About the 1st century CE they moved into the lower valley of the Vistula River, but, unable to defend themselves there against the Gepidae, they migrated westward to the borders of the Roman Empire.

Even so, we don’t actually know anything about that the woman on the right. For all we know, she might be the older woman’s Scandinavian daughter-in-law, or a seasonal worker brought in from Picardy, or a descendant of some family of textile workers brought south from the Low Countries late in the fifteenth century, after Dukes of Burgundy took possession of them. She may be a person displaced from one of those towns which had been all-but-destroyed during World War I. The only reason we have for believing her dress traditional in Bresse is that the photographer apparently believed it was.

That photo is evidence, but not evidence of what was worn by a spinner or weaver in medieval Burgundy. What turns us back towards the Channel is information from earlier Voynich research.

Jacques Guy and Jorge Stolfi first suggested that the month-names in the Voynich calendar might be Occitan. Artur Sixto urged Judeo-Catalan, and more recently a writer whose name I cannot discover insisted they reflect a dialect spoken in the region of Belgium and the Low Countries.

Nick Pelling first noticed that a closely similar orthography occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy for England. The same fact and same source was later noticed by Don of Tallahassee. These things have since been repeated, sans attribution, by numerous theorists who prefer their readers to imagine those contributions original to themselves. This habit has come to be a hall-mark of team-spirit among some theory-groups, and most prominently of the ‘Germanic-central European’ theory group, a few of whom treat published research as street-urchins might treat a market-stall.

Here are the month-names in the Picard dialect as written today: ginvié January; févérié February; marche March; avri April; mai, maï May; join June; juillé July; aout August; siétimbe, sétimbe September; octobe October; novimbe November; déchimbe December.

Here I must add that in considering the old military rolls of Calais I found the first known instance of a crossbowman’s being called ‘Sagittario’.

UPDATE (June 24th., 2022) – Koen Gheuens, who has studied formally the subject of historical linguistics, has very kindly given me permission to add the following:

I would be cautious with those month names. People claim with equal confidence that they are southern French or northern French, and there seems to be a lot of confusion. I am yet to see convincing evidence for either region. When I asked a professor of French linguistics about this some years ago, he said that the material was simply not sufficient to determine a region. I do think determining a region should be possible, but so far the evidence is minimal. It should be possible for someone who is at home in historical French texts, regional evolutions in French dialects, and has a lot of spare time though.

Koen Gheuens, pers. com.

Most recently, Koen Gheuen has tracked the Voynich-style eight-legged ‘lobster’ from Norman Sicily through northern France (near the Belgian border), and even further – to as far as Alsace.

  • Koen Gheuens, ‘Homard à l’Alsacienne’, The Voynich Temple herculeaf.wordpress.com (November 11th., 2018)
  • Koen Gheuens, ‘ A network of faulty lobsters: Scotus, Cantimpré, Megenberg and the Voynich Manuscript’. (December 11th., 2018)

Though sheer serendipity, I happened on another example of the ‘faulty lobster’ a couple of days ago. An infra-red map of a detail in a painting dated probably c.1263-4, and made by Margarito d’Arezzo, shows a lobster with eight legs and two claws. The image is part of a video discussing the National Gallery’s restoration of the oldest painting in its collection. Here’s the detail. For close-up, open the image in a new tab.

screenshot from ‘How we uncovered the secrets of the Gallery’s oldest painting’ – video by London’s National Gallery. The infra-red image is seen at 5:53. This faulty lobster has 8 legs *and* two front claws.

Notice of bias – I’m strongly biased in favour of conservators and other such tech’y Museum types. If I have to choose between getting the opinion of a librarian, an historian or a conservator – I’m sorry to say that my innate bias will incline me towards the last.

Margarito d’Arezzo made that painting during the lifetime of Thomas of Cantimpré, and only twenty years after the latter’s most famous work, “Opus de natura rerum” had been completed – 1244 AD, So there’s no chronological problem about positing connection to Cantimpré’s ‘faulty lobsters’, nor even to Michael Scot’s.

Thomas of Cantimpré was initially a member of the religious order of Canons regular and was later ordained a priest. He studied and lived in Liege, in Cologne, in Louvain and in Paris. In 1240 he was made a Professor of Philosophy at the university of Louvain. “Opus de natura rerum” is his best-known, but not his only composition.

In the centre of the larger work, d’Arezzo placed the Virgin and gave her a crown in which German and Byzantine elements are combined, intending (in my opinion) allusion to the rulers of Sicily and thus to the emperor’s cause (the Ghibelline cause), to which his city remained always constant.

What allows us to harmonise the findings of those several Voynich writers’ earlier-named is not insistence on a particular nationality or first language. The fact that is that all Europe had a single language in common – Latin – and it was in Latin language that knowledge was disseminated across all of western Europe. Chief among the centres of learning when the Voynich manuscript’s quires were formed were the Universities of Paris, Bologna, Padua and – as we’ve seen) Toledo.

For people living at a distance from Europe, I add a few more maps to finish this post.

Afterword:

I wanted to include a revision of the ‘East’ figure from folio 85r, but with this post so long already I’ll refer to just one point: in one of the few remaining written accounts of the Mongols, a Latin writer describes how their garments are tied and remarks that they have a collar and ‘fasten on the [wearer’s] right’. The person who first made the drawing, if living in Europe might – quite simply – have misunderstood.

One thought on “O’Donovan notes #7 – Range is Balance (Pt 1).

  1. I usually keep to English-language sources in this English-language blog, but I must mention

    Dries Tys, ‘Vikingen in Kust-Vlaanderen’, in Pieterjan Deckers and Barbora Wouters (eds.), Op het raakvlak van twee landschappen: De vroegste geschiedenis van Brugge. Second edition published in 2019 (Van de Wiele: Brugge)

    Like

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