Among the books you see listed in ‘Recommended Reading’ is one that tells of the life and adventures of Johann Schiltberger.
The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427. Translated from the Heidelberg MS edited in 1859 by Professor Karl Friedrich Neumann, by Commander J. Buchan Telfer, R.N., F.S.A., F.R.G.S. With Notes by Professor P. Bruun of the Imperial University of South Russia, at Odessa, and a Preface, Introduction and Notes by the Translator and Editor. 1879 (1878). includes map.
Five or six years ago, having come to feel rather frustrated and irritated by seeing the results of days, or weeks (and in sense, I suppose, a lifetime’s) research being met by little except a combination of theft and insult, I toyed for a while with the idea of doing what Jacques Guy had done and creating a fake ‘theory’. Guy’s motives were, I think, to bring home to his contemporaries that deciding matters of history and codicology and even cryptography by no more than subjective judgements of ‘plausibility’ was a complete waste of time. Well – perhaps that was his motive; one cannot know. Still, it led to collateral damage which he, scarcely less than Stolfi, would regret.
The example was enough to deter me from pretending the ‘Schiltberger theory’ was a genuine one.
Now, though, it might serve as something of an object lesson for newcomers, so let me tell you how that ‘theory’ was formed.
I simply used a large academic database, typed in a motley lot of search terms. Half were honest, reflecting my own findings and the rest came from theories then circulating.
Among the listed results – articles and books containing all those terms – I decided on a book already on my shelves. The Haklyut edition of Schiltberger’s account of his slave-years and final escape.
Schiltberger’s story has been ‘gentrified’ by the wiki article’s author, but the facts are these.
Schiltberger’s family had put him into, or let him serve in, the army of a certain lord when he was fourteen.
He was captured and enslaved when barely sixteen (1396).
He lived as a slave for the next thirty-two years.
His work was to serve the succession of Turkish, then Mongol rulers as a courier ‘runner’. That he was also permitted use of a horse is clear and, in fact, it was on horseback that he finally made his escape around 1426 or so.
He reached Constantinople and was kindly received and treated by the Palaeologan emperor but, being still a slave, he was still the property of his owner and liable to be reclaimed if found, so he remained in hiding for a time, until finally assisted to return to his native home in Bavaria in 1427.
So there you are. I’m sure you see that it would not difficult to work that up into all-encompassing Germanic-Mongol-Genoese-…and most other things… Voynich theory.
It would offer a plausible reason for the chap’s writing in a peculiar script, and speaking a form of language otherwise unattested – we’d posit that he’d spent so long with the Mongols that his speech and writing had been influenced by the ‘Tatar’ tongue.
Or it might be imagined that his role as a slave – runner or courier – had led him to know some clever non-:Latin cipher method… and though there’s no evidence one might argue that it wasn’t Rudolf but Sigismund (also king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor) who had given the poor ex-slave the sum of 600 ducats.
And that’s pretty much how Voynich theories are made.
Life being full of annoying ironies, who knows… maybe I’m right without meaning to be, as perhaps Guy also was about the Asian character of the Voynichese. Stolfi’s subsequent study led him to suggest Jurchen.
He may be right, too.
To shift the focus of attention from a ‘central European Christian’ theory to one with regions east of the Bosporus at their heart might be easier were the chief actor a ‘central European’ – and for the sake of the thing, Schiltberger was a candidate as good as any other.
Postscript: I see that now the same Hakluyt edition as that referenced at the head of the post is now at the internet archive. (here)
Header illustration: Dehoij – Willem van de Velde ‘Sketching a Sea Battle’ 
Any, or all of the Friedmans’ three premises might be proven true one day. But they weren’t in 1912, nor during the 1940s, and they haven’t been proven true yet.
In most fields of study, the misconceptions of sixty years ago have been superseded, but this is not the case in ‘Voynich studies’.
Since the late 1990s, and the closure of the first mailing list, the study has seen a catastrophic shift in emphasis from collaborative enquiry into a fifteenth-century object, to what Pelling once astutely described as a ‘Theory War’.
While not every researcher devotes their energies to finding items in support of a particular theory, the majority now do. The theories for which that circumstantial support is hunted are speculations derived from the earlier speculations by Wilfrid Voynich, William Romaine Newbold, the Friedmans and/or Hugh O’Neill with the most widely disseminated – the most narrowly Eurocentic – theory being the most dependent on them for its ‘givens’.
Because the earlier narratives were affected by ideas and assumptions characteristic of the late nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries about the nature of medieval thought and society, so now the usual type of speculative narrative (deemed ‘theory’) brings many outmoded ideas into the present time.
Until now, linguists and statistical analysts have stood apart from the theory-war’ but should any develop attachment to one or another of the hypothetical narratives or – on the other hand – produce results which present blank opposition to some widely held theory, this neutral territory could become as fraught with antagonisms as other aspects of the study now are.
With growth of theory-war mentality – especially noticeable after 2004 – study of Beinecke MS 408 for its own sake has gradually become a sideline; for the most theory-driven the manuscript is just one of numerous sources to be mined for details that can, given compatible interpretation, adorn the hypothetical narrative to give it the appearance of being more solid. To observe that a given detail may have been interpreted wrongly is to provoke nothing but hostility from those whose theoretical narrative is well served by the error. Indeed, many show every sign of preferring the virtual manuscript of their own invention to the problematic original, and some will go so far as to suggest the manuscript can be understood by none but hypothetical means. To discuss or debate this last point was forbidden by executive order at voynich.ninja, discussion of methodologies deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the study of a medieval manuscript. No – I’m not kidding. The forum manager felt – probably rightly – that it would cause too much friction.
It is not only members of the larger theory groups who become enraged when confronted with a failure to adopt their preferred theory. In the following passage, leaders of a ‘New World’ theory become incoherent with rage for the same reason. I would point out that one of the authors, Jules Janick, has a well-deserved reputation for his studies in the history of botany and its illustration. None that I’ve read demand the reader ‘believe or else’ but when that ‘Voynich hat’ is on his head, Janick is indistinguishable from the most vicious determined promoters of theories opposed to his own, though I concur with the idea that to defend a theory in despite of contrary evidence is behaviour better suited to fanatics than to scholars. He and Tucker write:
In addition to the fact that Janick and Tucker must know perfectly well that credit for the ‘hoax’ theory is not due to ‘bloggers’ but to Rich Santacoloma (a very civil theorist who does not render those of different opinions faceless), the way Janick and Tucker employ the term “iconographic analysis” is not justified by the content of their book. In it, I find no sign that either author understands what the discipline involves in terms of either method or range of expected sources – and no more do the ‘Eurocentic’ theory-groups whose members use it to describe any effort of any sort made to name the subject of an image.
To discuss and address issues of terminology and methodology is impossible in the current atmosphere of ‘theory-war’ just as it has become impossible to invite discussion of possible implications of the manuscript’s including various Asian forms and conventions (see ‘details’ below). One might wish a return to reason and egalitarian attitudes were possible but I cannot envision it will be in the near future. Too much time, effort and ‘face’ has been invested in successful promotion of the various speculative-hypothetical stories.
These are just two of numerous instances where the manuscript’s imagery includes motifs, details and stylistic habits characteristic of hither or further Asia.
As to the ‘white wall’ idea reflected in popular histories of the earlier twentieth century – little of it is found today in serious historical writing. In fact, just a year after Friedman interviewed Erwin Panofsky, a first paper on the subject of Asian and other foreign peoples within Latin Europe was published in Speculum – the same journal which had finally decided to publish O’Neill’s 300 word ‘note’. The latter sparked another Voynich narrative; the former failed to see any widening of the NSA’s research parameters.
Iris Origo, ‘The Domestic Enemy: The Eastern Slaves in Tuscany in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, Speculum, Vol.30 (1955) pp. 321-66
Origo cites, for example, via Robert Davidsohn, the complaint made by a twelfth-century Pisan monk about the number and variety of foreigners in his city during the annual Great Fair, speaking of:
“Turks and Lybians [Libyans] and Parths and Chaldeans, and similar monsters emerging from the sea.”
In the same century, Benjamin of Tudela described those to be seen in the city of Montpellier:
… Har Gaash which is called Montpellier. This is a place well situated for commerce. It is about a parasang from the sea, and men come for business there from all quarters, from Edom, Ishmael [Yemen?], the land of Algarve , Lombardy, the dominion of Rome the Great (by which he means all the Byzantine empire), from all the land of Egypt, Palestine, Greece, France, Asia and England. People of all nations are found there doing business through the medium of the Genoese and Pisans. In the city there are scholars of great eminence, at their head being R. Reuben,, …. They have among them houses of learning devoted to the study of the Talmud.
For the later history of Montpellier’s Jews see ‘Montpellier‘ in the Jewish Encyclopaedia online.
From those many temporary or shorter-resident foreigners, we move in the fourteenth century to greater number of permanent ones, beginning with the decree issued by the Priors of Florence on March 2nd., 1363, which permitted “the unlimited importation of foreign slaves of either sex – provided only that they were infidels, not Christians”.
A slave should not be presumed illiterate, ill-bred or uncultured. Slaves included free persons enslaved, whether by capture in war, by abduction or by deliberate sale to the slavers. Mamluk Egypt was the major buyer, and Arab slavers the major supplier within the African continent, but the European Knights Hospitaller in Crete and the Genoese were the next most important figures in the medieval trade. So alarmed did the Mongol rulers of the north become at the draining of their own potential armies by the loss of women and children that they banned the trade – or rather, attempted to do so.
Thus the plain fact of history is that the strange-looking matter in the Voynich manuscript could – for all we know – have come first into Latin horizons with an Asian woman as easily as a Latin man. The ‘white wall’ idea is now nearly seventy years out of date at least, yet for theorists attached to narratives originating in the ideas of that time, assumptions and bias implicit in Wilfrid’s narrative, in the Friedman’s parameters for research and thus in d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma remains current thinking. When one can be publicly admonished by a ‘Eurocentric’ on the grounds that, by asking whether we haven’t placed too much reliance on the Mnishovsky rumour, one deserves censure for having ‘spoken disrespectfully of a member of the nobility’, then one can only imagine the offense likely to be taken if one suggests Rudolf might have paid six hundred ducats for the writings of a Mongol slave.
Of course, it wasn’t only the slaves who knew something of Asia by the late 1300s. In the Upper church of St. Francis of Assisi, a manuscript is depicted in the style of a western codex and with inscriptions intended for the recently-invented Phagspa script. Tanaka wrote the seminal paper on this matter, to which I referred when explaining for Voynicheros the historical context for the manuscript’s final phase of development before c.1400. The information was received in silence.
Sources recommended in those posts to voynichimagery.
Hidemichi Tanaka, ‘The Mongolian script in Giotto’s paintings at the Scrovegni Chapel at Padova’, Akten des XXV. Internationalen Kongresses fur Kunstgeschichte Pt.6 (1986) pp.167-74. or:
Hidemichi Tanaka, “Giotto and the Influences of the Mongols and the Chinese on His Art: A New Analysis of the Legend of St. Francis and the Fresco Paintings in the Scrovegni Chapel”, in: Bijutsu shigaku [Art History] (Sendai), VI (1984),
__________________, ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’, (October 31st, 2016).
Roxanne Pranzniac, ‘Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250-1350’, Journal of World History, Vol. 21, No. 2 (June 2010), pp. 177-217.
but see also
Hidemichi Tanaka,, Oriental scripts in the paintings of Giotto’s period” – Extrait de la Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Mai-Juin 1989 pp. 214-224 .
Vera-Simone Schulz, ‘From Letter to Line: Artistic Experiments with Pseudo-Script in Late Medieval Italian Painting, Preliminary Remarks’ in Marzia Faietti and Gerhard Wolf (eds.), The Power of Line (2015) pp.144-161.
I also see that a wiki article has been written during the past couple of years.
note (22nd April 2019) – on second reading I found that wiki article so bad as to be objectionable and have removed the link. Readers will get a less skewed idea of the degree of intercourse between Asia and Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by reading the primary sources in Henry Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither, [4 vols]which can be read through the internet archive (vol. 1 linked) or the excerpts reprinted with commentary on the Silk Road Seattle site.
Postscript (4th April 2019) – in the current theory-driven atmosphere, it occurs to me that I should say plainly that by noting Asian elements in the imagery, or pointing out that the old ‘white wall Europe’ idea is contradicted by the facts, I am not announcing allegiance to any existing theory, nor the advent of a new one. If I have any ‘theory’ it is that the manuscript would be better served by more sober methods than theory creation.
April 5th – in response to readers’ comments I have added a couple of phrases, to clarify (i) that I do not mean to imply the forum manager responsible for this problem, which predates the establishment of voynich.ninja and (ii) that an the ‘theory war’ includes (and could be argued to have begun with) those maintaining the theoretical history which is so often repeated today.