Conundrum – can readers help?

Two previous

 

THIS is another aside, but research into medieval calendars, computus, astronomy and astrology involves palaeography and the history of notation, so it isn’t too far off topic.    A detail mentioned in ‘Chronological Strata Pt 1’ (Feb. 5th., 2020) raised a few questions, for two of which a Voynich writer has offered his opinion. What is needed now is some source as verification, and means to have light shed on the usual ancillary questions.

Here’s the diagram again.

The two questions I asked help with at Nick Pelling’s blog were the simplest: 1. Why is the ‘3’written in this form? and 2. How should we understand that ‘gate’ under the diagram?

to which JKPetersen (alone) replied, saying::

The symbol above the 3 indicates that it is an ordinal. It is the third diagram. Ordinals were written in many different ways (with a, with o, with m, with 9, the “us” abbreviation). You can see examples of ordinals in the VMS quire numbers.

If you go to folio 9r a couple of pages later, you will see the number 4 with the same symbol above it, to represent the 4th drawing. The same with the one following, which is the 5th drawing.

and

The “gate” emblem is a Nota symbol. The double-cee shape with a line over it is an early-medieval way of writing the letter “a” (omega is sometimes written that way too, but in this case it is “a”).

So to break it down, to make it easier to interpret it… you have N (the fence-like shape), T (the upright shape on its right-hand side), the “o” (obvious), and the “a” above it.

He’s putting emphasis on either the diagram above or the paragraph to the right, but since the text underneath the Nota symbol is erased, it’s hard to tell which.

-for which interpretation I am very grateful; it seems entirely credible to me.

Various Voynich writers (including the present one) had earlier written or posted about the history of number and numerals.  Petersen’s contributions can be found on his blog.  See e.g.  ‘Latin’s “Om-age” to Indic Numerals’, voynichportal, Nov.5th., 2017.

 

Sources.

Apart from one slight problem – the Harley manuscript is not an early medieval manuscript, but thirteenth-century – Petersen’s interpretation does, as I say, seem reasonable to me.

Unfortunately, though, he could provide no secondary source or reference work in support, so I’m now asking if readers can think of any.

I’d already asked about, and consulted the usual standard references before asking those initial questions at Pelling’s blog.  What I’d been looking for was some perspective on the range and period over which these forms occur – whether  Scot invented the ‘gate’ form, or  whether it is attested only in England or Paris or Toledo (or common in all of them), and whether the -3- with that ‘omega’ is found only in Latins works and so on. This I’d expected to learn from the secondary studies. It is surprising how little attention is paid in histories of mathematics, notation, and palaeography to forms for writing ordinals.   Bischoff, for example, offered just this (p.176):

In early medieval manuscripts the numerals are set between points in order to stand out. In rare cases suprascript strokes are added (without change of meaning). 

In evidence for which, he cites Mallon and, later Bruckner on the point that this practice lasts only until the 12thC.   The suggestion occurs that if the Harley text is a close copy of Scot’s then Scot was inclined to use near-archaisms.  One would need to consider the evidence, in either case.  Bischoff also refers to Hill’s tables (1915)-  which are still used today as a convenient if less-than-representative survey.

  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages (CUP  1990)
  • G.F Hill, The development of Arabic numerals in Europe: exhibited in sixty-four tables.  (Oxford, Clarendon  1915).  A copy from the microform is now at the internet archive).
  • A contemporary review of Hill’s work, by L. Longworth Dames in Man, Vol. 15 (1915), pp. 143-144  comments that “the representation is very unequally distributed among the nations of Europe, German examples being in excess of all others, followed by those of Italy and the Netherlands. France, it is surprising to find, is hardly represented at all…[and].. it would be of great interest if more evidence could be obtained from Spain… for the close association with Arabs in the peninsula would (prima facie) lead us to expect a closer resemblance [there] to the Eastern forms for the cyphers than that found elsewhere in western Europe”.
  • Louis Karpinski, among others, has written more on the practices in medieval Spain (where Scot obtained the text of al-Bitruji’s text) and done something to address earlier failures to include Jewish astronomical sources.    An interested reader will find Karpinski’s papers easily enough.

Numerals in Medieval texts vs Voynich manuscript.

As far as Beinecke MS 408 is concerned -an apparent absence of numerals from the main text has puzzled researchers for many years, though the quire numbers have been discussed of course.

On that subject, the seminal study (once again) is Nick Pelling’s, in his book of 2006 (pp. 15-21). Pelling’s approach became the model subsequently imitated and sometimes elaborated, but study of the manuscript’s quire numbers has not seen any qualitative improvement since then, so far as I can discover. (Do correct me if you know better).

The difficulty with all the instances which followed Pelling’s effort – again, so far as I’ve been able to find mention made of them – is that so many Voynich writers do not so much define the parameters of  research  as e.g. ‘Find the range over which  numerals occur in this form and see where the Voynich sort fit’  so much as ‘Assuming that my Voynich theory “x” is right, how can the quire numbers/images be argued to support that theory?”  When the parameters of investigation are pre-empted by the conclusions on which the researcher is already determined… well, you can finish that sentence for yourself.

This, of course, is the quintessential ‘Voynich flaw’ and has infected Voynich writings since 1912 – being naturally inherited thereafter by writers adhering to one of the traditionalist narratives.

Without being conscious of the shift, Voynich writers tend, for these reasons, to not so much explain the intention of the text itself, as to propound or elaborate upon their theory, using ‘clips’ from the manuscript as illustration.  This habit is far less noticeable in the linguists and cryptographers, but has been pervasive in approaches to, and assertions about the manuscript’s pictures and the many historical-fictional narratives.

That inherited flaw by which a theory is made the aim and focus of research is magnified by certain peculiar ‘dicta’ the effect of which is especially noticeable in what is said and written by core-conservatives and various traditionalists, viz. that alone among those claiming to treat of scientific, historical (or even art-historical) subjects,  a Voynich theorist need not refer to any precedent study, not provide any details of secondary sources they’ve drawn from … except in such such manner as they please.   In extreme cases, even details of what manuscripts  provided the theorist’s illustrations and ‘clips’ are absent and requests for such information – revisionist take note – are not rarely met with every sign of offence.

Some exceptions occur, of course, and Pelling’s custom is to provide documentation of the usual sort.

I’m sorry to say that my asking JKPetersen for details of his sources resulted in expressions of indignation, too.  The work of tracing just how the study of one or another ‘voynich idea’ has taken hold is made unusually difficult by such such things too.

As far as I can discover, the Voynich quire-numbers still await some solid, objective study.

Though Pelling’s book is out of print, his views can be read online.

Note – Recommending Voynich writers..

My practice is to recommend Voynich writers who are –  so far as one is able to see in the ‘Voynich fog’ –  the original contributor of some item or line of enquiry – or  because their writings show a consistently fair treatment of their readers and a sense of perspective: I mean, an understanding that a researcher is not necessarily so interested in a particular theory as in sources of evidence and the lineage for some particular element within the study – a contribution, assertion, canonised myth or popular ‘weed-seed’. An historian of voynich studies is constantly obliged to ask (sometimes soberly, sometimes incredulously) ‘Where did that idea come from?’

My referring to a given Voynich writer has nothing to do with whether or not I agree with their theory or opinion.  I not only differ from Pelling on many points, but on some disagree emphatically.  His definition of and discussion of “parallel hatching”, for example, is wrong, so that the inferences he takes on that basis are also wrong.  As what I suppose one might describe as a “small-t” traditionalist, Pelling’s basic assumption is that the manuscript’s content expresses European knowledge and material culture.  But he plays fair with his readers and answers requests for things like precedent studies and useful sources.

I do not refer my readers to Voynich writers (or indeed any writers) of the sort I think of as  ‘stone-soup men’.  To put it differently and if you’ll permit my quoting from something Einstein said :…

One should guard against inculcating … an idea that the aim of life is success, for a successful man normally receives from his peers an incomparably greater portion than is deserved by the services he has been able to render them. 

Every writer is perfectly entitled to prefer one source over another. I do not think it fair to any reader to present information derived from external sources or for which precedents exist, without honest account of them given.

_________________________

Notes on Panofsky’s comments 2

Panofsky had been in America since September of 1931, invited as guest lecturer by Professor Cook:

Two years before the enforced exodus of the intellectual élite that followed the advent of Hitler, Panofsky became a regular guest professor in the United States, at the invitation of Professor Cook. He [Panofsky] lectured in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the auspices of what was to become the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University’s graduate department of art history, and immediately made a deep impression on his American colleagues and students.

  • William S. Heckscher, ‘Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 28, No. 1, Erwin Panofsky: In Memoriam (1969), pp. 4-21. (p.13).
  • [Biography] Dr. Walter S. Cook, in whose honour annual lectures are presented at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts.

The meeting with Mrs. Voynich is most easily explained by positing that both were consulting medieval and renaissance manuscripts in the Pierpont Morgan Library, for it was a worker there (the librarian?)  Ms.Greene who offered to introduce Mrs. Voynich to the Professor.

“Mrs. Voynich has been working at the Morgan Library, and Miss Greene continues to be most friendly and helpful. A short time ago she volunteered the opinion that she did not think any scholar in this country would be able to help us with the problem … [but now] a certain Dr. Erwin Panofsky … is at present in New York and Miss Greene suggested that she bring him and Mrs. Voynich together- very decent of her don’t you think.” – Letter from Anne Nill to H.Garland, (Feb 10th., 1932).

Mrs. Voynich first showed Panofsky the worn negative photostats, perhaps late in 1931, but he saw the manuscript itself the next year – on Feb. 5th 1932. (see first post in this series)

 

Panofsky’s subsequent career in America; the value of his private (1932) assessment of the manuscript.

or Panofsky’s earlier approach to art, see

On Panofsky in America, I’ll cite Gaston:

 Panofsky’s appointment to the Institute of Fine Arts in New York in 1933 and to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1935, together with his extraordinary productivity and high profile as public lecturer in the following three decades guaranteed him a stellar career, and an influence within the discipline, and the humanities in general, that was then unrivalled for an art historian. …One of the serious shortcomings of Panofsky’s approach to images was his unwillingness to explore the social matrices in which [pictures] were produced and used.

  • (review) Irving Lavin (ed.), Meaning in the Visual Arts: Views from the Outside. A Centennial Commemoration of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) (1995) reviewed by Robert W.Gaston in  International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Spring, 1998), pp. 613-623.

Panofsky wrote primarily on late medieval and Renaissance art in northern Europe and Italy, and mostly, but by no means exclusively, on painting.

He was not omniscient, nor dispassionate.  He revered humanism and like the majority of his own time, idealised the model of the auteur as creative spirit gifted with  superior sensitivity, perception and so forth. It is the more appealing, humanist and individualist, counterpart for that obsession with the dominant white male which infused the whole of medieval Latin art and remained a preoccupation of historians in the European tradition for most of the twentieth century.

 

Where Panofsky’s opinion differed from the majority.
  • Non-Latin

Absence of the ‘dominant white male’ theme – and numerous other defining themes of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art – from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 is a powerful argument for the content’s non-Latin origin – something Panofsky recognised. He attributed it to southern (Sephardi?) Jewish origin saying he recognised influence from Islamic style and from Kabbalah. If he ever elaborated on these things in writing, no record of it has come to light.

There are details in the manuscript which express the Mediterranean and/or Latin (i.e. western European) traditions – but in the present writer’s view these are plainly late-phase additions. They include (of course) post-manufacture items such as marginalia, but some details in the body of the work – principally the central motifs in the calendar’s diagrams.

It never occurred to Wilfrid Voynich to suppose the work other than the individual creation (autograph) of an individual, ‘superior type’ and a white male European.  Nor, apparently did others look much further than southern Europe and the figure of Ramon Llull.

This phenomenon,by which the world is effectively defined as Europe – and into which nothing comes except by the authority and choice of a Latin European male – was usual among nineteenth century historians and particularly the Anglo-German school.  It affected assumptions then, and is still with us, having deeply impacted on the course, nature and direction of the manuscript’s study for most of the period from 1912-2015.

The present author found, still, in 2014, that the majority of Voynicheros imagine it impossible that anything of non-European origin could be found in Europe except that Latin European had fetched it or commissioned its being brought.  This is what we call the ‘White Wall’ phenomenon, and that it should persist to the present day would surely distress Lynn White – a pioneer in the history of cross-cultural exchange upon whose pioneering studies so much more has now been built.

  • .Lynn White, Jr., ‘Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Apr., 1940), pp. 141-159
  • ________________, ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.
  • ________________, ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221

Panofsky does not suggest the manuscript’s content came from any great distance, but the very fact that he could see the content does not evince the culture of Latin Europe sets his opinion of the manuscript apart from the majority.

Though apparently Panofsky’s 1932 assessment came to be known to the Friedman group, neither it nor his responses of 1954 were given much weight by the cryptanalysts.  In 1978 d’Imperio knows so little of Panofsky’s work that she imagines him unaware of the work of Albertus Magnus (!)

  • Non-authorial

Panofsky differs again from the reflexive assumptions made by those writing about the manuscript from 1912-1954.

He does not imagine any  ‘author’ for the whole work in 1933 and even in 1945, speaks of a nameless figure, almost a generic one: the man writing down his life-time’s learning for his son. Even that idea seems to imply that much of what is written is to be seen as inherited from an earlier time.

The majority simply presumed the work the creation of a Latin ‘author’ and the matter contemporaneous with the present manuscript’s inscription.

On the other hand, Panofsky no more than anyone else during the twentieth century imagined that the work could be entirely derivative.

In 1932 he saw it emerging from a community rather than an individual. BY 1954, in answer to Q.10, he speaks of “a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir”.

Social history did not exist as yet, except as a means to make lessons attractive for children or by way of that idealisation of medieval artisans reflected by the ‘arts and crafts movement‘.

The first English-language History of Technology – its first volume –  was published only in 1954, under Charles’ Singer’s editorship.

The interaction between the history of events and the history of economic factors has always been in flux, and though England is given much credit for the study’s development, even in the 1950s it was often dismissed as  ‘mere commerce’.

Social history as a scholarly discipline only gained general recognition in the 1960s (initially termed ‘laundry-list history’) and women’s history gained its place still later.

Comparative cultural studies were almost unheard of, and Lynn White struggled against the ‘white wall’ phenomenon for thirty years and more.

In the context of his time, Panofsky’s approach to the manuscript and his forming opinions solely from the primary evidence – though by reference to his own wide range of substantial study – makes his the most important commentary we have on the subject of the imagery, even now.

Because it suited the Friedmans believe that the text was a very clever, unique, cipher, they were obliged to adopt an ‘authorial’ idea of the manuscript, and this has proven a persistent habit in the study, though less emphasised since about 2011.

  • Composite of earlier matter.

I take as implied by the answer he gave to Friedman’s Q.10 that Panofsky saw the manuscript as deriving from earlier matter;  something of the same implication might be taken from his alluding to Kabbalah in 1932.

The ‘authorial’ idea carried an   expectation of the homogenous autograph, an idea found in most commentaries on the manuscript to as late as 2010-2011, when the present author was obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ in the second mailing list for saying the content could be no autograph, nor the work of a single author, because the stylistic variations indicated derivation from at least three earlier sources, each manifesting a distinct history and line of transmission to Europe.

That opinion is now widely accepted – without reference to the present author’s evidence and argument – because after some months, one contributor to that mailing list recalled that the word ‘compilation’ is found somewhere in the ‘Voynich gospel’ – d’Imperio’s booklet of 1978. This official ‘sanction’ permitted the then-radical shift from the traditional ‘authorial’ to ‘non-authorial’ approach. ( My thanks to Don Hoffman for being the first to brave the picket-line and adopt the conclusions of my work, even use of the technical term ‘florilegium’ – which in medieval times meant a collection of textual, not botanical, items).

  • Setting aside Newbold’s categories.

Panofsky was among the very few to offer any explanation of the manuscript and of its content by reference to the primary document itself, and he never adopted  Newbold’s impressionistic categories  as others did – including the cryptanalysts’ who merely elaborated  them.

He avoided  both the ‘authorial’ notion and Newbold’s idea of a specifically ‘biological’ section.

Once again, neither Panofsky’s opinion, (nor the substantial evidence and argument provided by the present writer from 2009) saw the abandonment of Newbold’s and Friedman’s “categories” – with the result that one still sees Voynich narratives produced and adopted which unsupported by the historical evidence.

On efforts to justify the ‘biological’ idea see e.g.

I am told, though have not the details, that a contributor to voynich.nu  voynich.ninja is presently (Jan-Feb 2019) reprising Velinksa’s ideas and approach, though whether properly acknowledging the precedents, including Velinska’s work, you must discover for yourself.  In either case, it is a nonsense within any theory insisting the manuscript entirely the product of Latin European culture. Da Vinci was a hundred years before his time, and he wasn’t born until 1519: at best eighty years after the manuscript was made, and at worst (for such ideas) almost a century.

But the persistence of such notions relies, ultimately on an impression expressed by William Romaine Newbold.

 

  • Opinions as conclusions from evidence.

Unlike the majority of Voynich writers, before him or since, Panofsky derived his opinions from the primary source and solid historical and iconographic evidence.

Every extant study by him displays a consistent rigor and his sense of obligation to the reader: he will explain how he reached each point in his conclusions by reference to direct, specific, and verifiable reference across a wide range of historical, textual and art-historical material – always with a focus on the primary evidence.  One may differ, but one is never asked simply ‘to believe’.  His aim is not persuasion but elucidation.  It constitutes a forensic approach which was to that time, and is largely still, scarcely employed in discussions of Beinecke MS 408.

One must suppose that had he been asked to do so, Panofsky could have produced a study of the manuscript –  its form and imagery –  which would have substantially altered our understanding of its content.

But all he was asked to do was fill out  Friedman’s questionnaire.

A brief outline of Panofsky’s usual practice is offered here.

Next post: Panofsky’s hesitations.

minor corrections 8th Feb. 2019