O’Donovan Notes #11 .. despite howls of derision.

2300 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

I’ve commented recently on the fact that we do not know that the Voynich manuscript was made in western Christian (i.e. ‘Latin’) Europe, and since the vast majority of theoretical narratives, and assumptions made in analysing the written text, have taken a Latin origin as one of their unquestioned ‘givens’ the question deserves attention – attention which it would normally have received as the first question addressed by any potential buyer.

Among the arguments I’ve seen offered in that cavalier/commonsense tone which is so common in Voynich writings are that the manuscript is on membrane; that the ink is an iron-gall ink; that the writing proceeds from left to right and other comments which show that the speaker has never looked into the question of whether or not these things are characteristics uniquely European.

None is.

There is clear distinction between manuscripts inscribed with the quill, as against those inscribed using a pen. There are regions in which quires are more commonly composed of four, as against five or more bifolios, and regions where the binding-style is characteristic of a given period and region. The use of sewing-supports is characteristic of Latin and of Armenian manuscripts, but the current binding of the Voynich manuscript is a little problematic, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post. And apart from the use of flax rather than hide for its sewing supports, we have to make clear a distinction rarely recognised by Voynich writers – that is, between when matter in a manuscript is first enunciated, when a given volume containing that information was manufactured, and the amount of time which elapsed between quires’ inscription and their being bound together.

In some cases these periods may be short, while in others the gap between enunciation and the current inscription of a text, and between the inscription and binding the quires into a single block, may be hundreds of years – and the addition of an external cover can occur later still.

None of this information is new to codicologists or paleographers, specialists in medieval history or iconographic analysts, but one sees little thought spared for such things when a Voynich theorist begins hunting support for his/her ideas. Wilfrid Voynich again set the model. He thought the manuscript made in the thirteenth century, so he looked for a single thirteenth-century ‘author’.

Manuscript cultures from the pre-modern era – for convenience described here as prior to the mid-sixteenth century – have more in common than is realised by most Voynich writers.

Let another scholar speak to the point. Advocating development of a comparative approach in manuscript studies, here’s what Beit-Arie writes:

One may marvel at the force of the regularity and continuity revealed in the basic structures, production techniques, social, artisanal and intellectual functions, and the aesthetic principles embodied in mid- and late medieval codices throughout book civilisations in all cultures.

Be they codices inscribed in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Persian or Hebrew scripts, or in the less widespread Syriac, Coptic, Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts – they all partake of the very same anatomy of the codex: common writing materials, similar proportions and formats, the analogous molecular structure of quiring achieved by the folding and stitching together of a regular number of bifolia, and the use of various means of markings in the margins ensuring the correct order of quires and bifolia.

The great majority of these codices would be set for copying by the laying out of the writing surface and by its ruling in a variety of techniques, most of them shared, functioning as a scaffold for the writing.

  • Malachi Beit-Arié, “The Advantages of Comparative Codicology: Further Examples,” in Jörg B. Quenzer, ed., Exploring Written Artefacts: Objects, Methods, and Concepts, vol. 1 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2021), 395-404. (now available at academia.edu)

And here we come to another of the Voynich manuscript’s unusual characteristics. The bifolios do not appear to have been ruled out.

In some cases, where a text-block (a set of quires stitched together) has later been trimmed down during the course of binding or re-binding, one may find that if the ruling out was done by pricking, the prick-marks are lost, but this does not appear to have occurred in the case of Beinecke MS 408.

In some cases, the ruling-out was later erased, as it commonly was in Italian humanist works attempting to emulate the minimalism of Greek manuscripts – but some trace normally remains and none has been noted, so far as I’ve seen, by any informed commentator.

Other methods, which used a frame and wire leave some impression on the membrane, but neither have those signs been noted by anyone who has observed the manuscript at first-hand.

Such marks may exist, but from what has so far been said of the manuscript, the Voynich quires show, in their lack of ruling out, divergence from that norm found across all those manuscript cultures listed by Beit-Arié.

This doesn’t prove the manuscript was or wasn’t made in Latin Europe, or in some other region where Latin presence and influence was to be found but it offers a useful research question if you’re looking for one: When, where and in what context do we find membrane inscribed without ruling-out? taking c.1440 AD as end-date.

Form and Content

The habit of ignoring the manuscript’s form, while expecting to define the manuscript’s content by guesswork, statistics or by creating imaginative-hypothetical storylines is as old as Voynich studies itself. Among the innumerable bizarre meme-laws which circulated before Lisa Fagin Davis became publicly involved with the online Voynich community was one which advised newcomers that it was “unnecessary” to pay attention to Nick Pelling’s early emphasis on codicology … because it was “too complicated”. No, I’m not kidding. The quote marks really mark quotes among the many pronounced as if by authority and so so staggered me as a newomer in 2009 that I began compiling a list of them from that time.

In much the same way, it was asserted until relatively recently that the drawings’ interpretations “were all subjective” and, more to the point, that they could only be illustrations for the written text, because that was imagined normal for western Christian manuscripts and it was supposed commonsense to believe no other origin possible for either the first enunciation of the content or for the present manuscript’s manufacture.

On the importance of balancing evidence from the manuscript as material object, and from its contents, I’ll again let another scholar speak. To what follows, a couple of very minor adjustments have been made, but the original paper is linked below so you can check that.

Since a manuscript is a material artefact that is usually produced in order to preserve and transmit specific contents, its role within a manuscript culture must be considered in a twofold way: In terms of its content and in terms of its physical – that is, its material and visual – characteristics.

By content we refer to the information that is encoded in written texts, but also in images as well as other possible sign systems within a manuscript such as musical notation.

The physical characteristics comprise anything from the manuscript’s format and measurements, to the materials chosen as support for writing and painting, to the visual organisation of a manuscript, its decoration and the style of the script.

Content and its concrete physical instantiations can be, and have often been, conceptually distinguished and considered in isolation from each other, but in the production and use of a manuscript they are inextricably interrelated. The intended content of a manuscript is an important factor in determining what physical characteristics the manuscript producer(s) will choose.

(..and vice versa!! A manuscript’s physical characteristics indicate where, when and by whom the content was intelligible. – D.)

Perhaps now readers who have not troubled much with the issue of how we read evidence embodied in a manuscript’s physical characteristics will realise why such things matter and provide limits for the exercise of what is politely called historical imagination in Voynich studies. In passing, let me also commend the codicological studies by Wladimir Dulov.

It is not only a written text which is encoded, and just as imagination alone will not hand us the key to the way a written text is encoded or enciphered, so neither will it provide the key to the information embedded or encoded in the manuscript’s physical evidence – its materials and its drawings.

In fact, just as the material object of a manuscript may contain folios gathered across a range of time, and the content of the written text can reflect sources first enunciated many miles and many centuries apart from one another, so too the drawings have to be studied for signs of diverse origin and what I’ll call chronological strata.

As you’ll see by roaming through what is said and written online about this manuscript, there is a general habit of maintaining Wilfrid Voynich’s assumption that everything in the manuscript had a single author and was composed at the same time the quires were inscribed. For this idea there is no justification except, perhaps, the obvious fact that the manuscript’s appearance is so unlike the expected western-Christian-medieval that commentators defaulted to imagining an amateur its imagined Latin author.

In more recent times we have seen the work recognised as a compendium (one positive advance in the study overall during the past thirteen years). Very recently we have seen Fagin Davis confirm that the written text is not by one scribal hand, but by several. The same had been observed earlier by Currier, and that observation refined by Pelling as early as 2006, and further defined and refined now by Davis in her presentation to the zoom conference in 2022.

In theory, of course, a number of scribes might all have been copying sections from a single master-work, but against this is the fact that the drawings do display what I’ve called chronological layers, and distinctly different – diverse – iconological codes inform drawings between one section and another, to which we must add what appear to be late additions in darker ink by a hand which I should think a Latin Christian’s.

Some Voynich writers such as Reeds, Pelling and Neal have appreciated the importance of codicology while failing to test the long-established theoretical history for the manuscript. Others have simply treated everything but their own variation of the traditional story as negotiable and in this, I’m sorry to say, adherents of the German-central-European idea have been worst. When was pointed out by Pelling that one or more of the scribal hands appeared to be influenced by the humanist style – and humanist style does not appear in the north until later than the vellum’s date-range, so the manuscript’s dating was arbitrarily altered to suit a time when humanist script was introduced to German-speaking regions.

If that theory wanted to claim the leaf-and-root section spoke to Frederick II’s interest in alchemy, or that the containers in that section were German Christian ritual vessels, proponents would simply ignore the physical and historical limits set by the physical evidence or – more often – ‘adjust’ them by asserting that the date could be extended from the early fifteenth century to as much as the mid-sixteenth century.. or that if the vellum were too coarse for German manufacture that German makers could produce coarse vellum too, or that the vellum wasn’t really coarse at all – the latter idea accidentally lent support by the new Beinecke scans’ being so bleached that the evidence of follicles and roughened surfaces was virtually erased and with it – by the way – evidence of the palette’s yellow wash. The manuscript’s curious green stars became blue and so on. To those with only digital access, which is all but a very few, discussion of various folios where that pigment appears thereafter seemed nonsensical.

Very recently, after two palaeographers declined to support a theory of German ‘hands’, the grapevine says that the ‘central European’ theory is about to be tweaked and re-formulated yet again, now to become a German-Venetian-military-Dominican-Franciscan theory that will incorporate (with or without credit) work done by non-supporters of the Germanist theory, and I fear bring to the mix even a work of such appalling bigotry that the religious order whose medieval member wrote it passes it over in silence and in this is followed by most medieval historians, some of whom may mention its title but then pass over its contents for shame.

Still, these rumours about the Germanist theory Mark ?? are still only rumour and worth no more unless it turns up in public.

NEXT POST – more about the manuscript’s drawings and how theorists’ determined erosion of ethical standards and methods from the early 2000s turned Voynich studies into what Pelling once called the ‘Voynich groundhog day’ – when exactly the same work is being done over and over, with each newcomer left in the dark about all previous work and how many began from exactly the same assumptions, followed exactly the same flawed approach, and ended with the same result – an idea that the work supported a preferred theoretical narrative.

Our example for this phenomenon will be a single, very small detail found within one detail within the Voynich map. Detached from its context, this detail has been covered, re-covered, re-discovered and re-explored, by methods re-invented and re-applied and with the same basic errors for almost twenty years.

Until then, perhaps you’d like to apply your critical thinking to the following. It’s a series of isolated comments strung together as if it formed an historical argument reached by an impartial survey of the manuscript’s material and iconographic evidence.

Precisely these same assertions have been offered and repeated since, at least, 2008 and by so many that I see no reason to name-and-shame the latest person to have failed to carefully think about what they chose to believe. Here’s what that person wrote:

The most important illustrations are those that are most specific and unambiguous, and which can offer clues to provenance and/or subject matter.

Many aspects of the manuscript offer clues to geographical provenance in the southern German or northern Italian cultural regions. There are four instances of marginalia in an unknown German dialect. ‘rot’ and ‘r’ appear in plant roots (4r, 29r), and it seems unlikely that a non-author would make such annotations.

The final word of the charm on 116v is ‘maria’ with a superscripted cross between ‘a’ and ‘r’, which—in addition to the cross on 79v— indicates a Christian context.

The Zodiac illustrations bear well-known parallels with southern German manuscripts, which do not need repetition here. The crown on 72v1 resembles crowns of the Holy Roman Emperors and other Austrian royals, including a c. 1350 reliquary bust of Charlemagne possibly made for Charles IV; an archducal crown on a painting of Rudolf IV, duke of Austria (d. 1365); the imperial crown buried with Friedrich III (d. 1493)* observed using an endoscope; a coin of 1484 depicting Sigismund, archduke of Austria; and a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer depicting Maximilian I (d. 1519).

The swallowtail merlons on the Rosettes** castle and city walls tie the manuscript to southern-German or northern-Italian contexts, where such merlons predominated. Swallowtail merlons also appear in documents made in early fourteenth-century Venice, 1340s Zürich, Sankt Peter an der Schwarzwald in 1487, Nürnberg in 1493, and another catalogued as 1300s ‘probably German’.

*The person described by that writer as ‘Friedrich III ‘ (d.1493) is better known to historians as Frederick III, and is to be distinguished from the Emperor Frederick III of Prussia, and both from Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg.

** [ note expanded 22 Feb 2023]. ‘nine rosettes page’ is a term coined by Nick Pelling in discussing a drawing subsequently analysed in detail by the present author over the period from 2011-2014 and which was shown to be a map. Overall, the conclusions of that analysis -were incompatible with any all-Latin-Christian or any German-imperial-sixteenth century theory (as the latter then was), and to this day supporters of the latter refer either to Pelling’s term ‘rosettes page’ or credit one of the several subsequent authors who attempted to create some alternative map-related interpretation which would conform to a Eurocentric theory. As was said in my earlier post on this motif, Mary d’Imperio, in her book The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma (1978) p.21 used the term rosettes and says the structure “resembles a castle”.

Such habits are why the Voynich manuscript’s study devolved so rapidly, from about 2010, into a series of groundhog days unless concerned with statistical and linguistic analyses of the written text. Little attention was paid to the manuscript’s codicology after Pelling’s work, until the Yale Facsimile edition (edited by Clemens) was made available in print.

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