The skies above

I was to pick up again after the ‘Weed seeds’ post, but have seen a comment to Koen Gheuens blog, in which four items are described as ‘indisputable facts’ though not one is a fact, and the only sense in which they are ‘indisputable’ is that to dispute them is rarely encouraged.

Among the four is the idea, repeated since 1932, that diagrams on folios 70v (part)* to 73v inclusive are ‘astrological’.

Now plainly an item of ‘Voynich doctrine’ it surely another among those deserving reevaluation in the light of current external scholarship.

N.B. Foliations: re “folio x (part)”

Before the Beinecke’s repagination of the manuscript a few years ago,  scholars used the foliation (page numbering) appearing on the folios themselves. Members of the first mailing list perforce developed their own system of reference before the manuscript was available online or in facsimile.  Still others were employed during the early 2000s, including that offered by the   ‘Voynich Gallery’ site on bibliotecaplayades.  Any revisionist surveying the history of this study is well advised to make and keep by them a comparative table of foliations.



Whether or not it is ever proven true that these diagrams were intended to serve astrology, the perception of them as ‘astrological’ owes less to their structure, or to their inscriptions’ being understood as they are not yet, nor to any learned opinion so much as to certain attitudes pervasive in England and central Europe during the nineteenth- and earlier twentieth centuries.

Without suggesting for a moment that any present-day Voynichero subscribes to those attitudes, certain methods and angles of approach have been inherited from that earlier period –  embedded , so to speak, in the territory – and these have frozen the limits within which (as any newcomer soon learns) posited comparisons are expected to be sought, treated and classified.

To the newcomer having prior  training in medieval studies, techniques of iconological analysis, or in the history of comparative astronomies and so forth it may seem curious – even quaint – that long superseded methods and habits are maintained in Voynich writings.  As, for example, that any and all reference to the stars in this manuscript continues to be presumed either ‘science’ or  ‘superstition;’ the one overtly or tacitly identified with Europe’s mathematical astronomy and the other with magic or astrology  in a simple binary scheme more characteristic of nineteenth-century popular history than twenty-first century scholarship.

I do not mean to imply that all Voynich writers are ignorant or unlearned; the opposite is manifestly true of many.  Rather, that on entering the Voynich portal, the wider world and its current standards of scholarship is expected to be set aside, or at least only referred to within the frame of a conservative ‘Voynich’ model.

That outmoded habits and methods are perceived within this study as ‘standard’ or ‘commonsense’ is most reasonably attributed, in the first instance, to their having been inherited along with the conservative model in general, by emulating d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, or e.g. Professor Brumbaugh’s writings of the 1960s and ’70s.

Some of those ‘old-fashioned’ methods and attitudes are described below for newcomers. Others may not need the information. Perhaps I should also make clear that not every Voynich writer currently engaged in this study is a conservative, let alone one of the deepest dye.


The methodological legacy.


1. ‘Scientific or Magical’. (540 wds)

Though many self-professed amateur Voynicheros know perfectly well that medieval writers did not observe so clear a distinction as we do now between astronomy and astrology, the habit persists of supposing that binary classification will do: “scientific or magical”,  to quote the Beinecke catalogue record.  Historically, the idea was – with regard to the heavens –  that  ‘science’ was defined as Europe’s mathematical astronomy while ‘superstition (magic or astrology) in terms of a foreign intrusion from ‘oriental’ minds, with the most relaxed sort of histories from before WWII not rarely mentioning warmer climate along with  imagined ‘racial predisposition’ as chief causes of ‘superstition’ .  The Greeks’ contribution to astrology was accepted, but granted the status of a quasi-science. No such latitude was granted others as, for example, the Jews. Arab ‘science’ was (as it were) granted a European visa, but Arab ‘magic’ not so much. Christian religious imagery was by tacit consent left unclassified in those terms.

Why  writings of the last century should adopt a simple ‘either-or’ –  “science or superstition”  is well understood.   Persistence of the same simple classification in Voynich writings, is, as I’ve said, better supposed due to the conservatives’ taking as their model for research a few secondary studies  written half a century ago.

Unfortunately, their emulating earlier methods and taking as first premises the speculations and assumptions of those earlier works has been to the disadvantage of more recent researchers, as the conservative grip on the study has increased and the  gulf has widened between the older and more recent understanding of relevant subjects, apart from studies directly concerned with linguistics and statistical analysis of the written text.

In the present case, for example, one sees a complete absence of any reference to various other forms of astronomical learning or its  art which are not to be classed as either  ‘science’ or ‘superstition’ (without india-rubber re-definition) and yet which have received a great deal of scholarly attention  since the 1930s  – and particularly since the 1960s – and are thus now well within the usual parameters of provenance-aimed research into ‘star-littered’ imagery.

Here we might mention images, both conceptual and realised in word or line,  which relate to navigational astronomy,  astronomical moralia,  poetry, memorised agricultural calendars of Mediterranean and of non-Mediterranean origin,  the stars as perceived in the monastic hours and  annual liturgical rosters (not only the Latins’),  not to mention literary metaphor,  proverb,  and so forth.   I add one illustration by way of example and without implying any theory.  This shows a star-clock for the month of March.  This physical diagram post-dates the Voynich manuscript and comes from a Latin author; the conceptual model and informing knowledge pre-dates the Voynich manuscript and was not exclusively Latin.  I cited these diagrams first a  few years ago at voynichimagery.

Reaction to any  introduction of such hitherto unconsidered material – even the odd recommendation of some article – can bring an immediate and passionately adverse reaction from certain individuals in the  ‘conservative’ camp, who appear to consider such things red herrings, introduced from ignoble motives by lesser minds, and it is not unknown for one or more to announce loudly that the heretic’s ‘nonsense’ is to be paid no heed.

Past generations cannot be held entirely responsible for the persistence of limited horizons and poor methods in Voynich writings.


2. ‘Match the picture’ (1750 wds)

From an inherited, and now fixed assumption in the conservative tradition,  the manuscript is supposed to be ‘underneath it all’ just an aberrant form of ‘ordinary’ Latin Christian work, and though the earlier assumption has faded that it is entirely the creation of a single author (imagined a Latin and, usually,  male) the habit of seeking to ‘match the picture’ from details in ordinary Latin (i.e. western Christian) works remains.

Where ‘foreign’ material is considered, as for example astrology or magic, the habit was earlier – and thus remains in Voynich studies – to imagine it entered a ‘white walled’ Europe by some specific and authoritative Latin Christian male – so that, once more, only the Latin works were thought necessary to consult.

In addition, everything in this manuscript was, from the first (i.e from 1912), presumed to exist in some other Latin manuscript (as well it could) but the Friedmans therefore considered no other medium but Latin manuscript art in hunting ‘matches’ for the manuscript’s and that  remains largely so, even now. The whole science of iconology, let alone the anthropology of  iconology, has passed unobserved.

There is no body of investigation into the Byzantine, Syrian, North African, Coptic or Islamic corpus which would allow us to judge whether the manuscript as a whole is, or isn’t, more like Latin works than any other. If this particular series of diagrams were characteristic of Byzantine Jews, the current parameters for research would prevent the precedent’s being discovered.  If, by luck or independence of thought, a researcher were to discover such a fact, one could certainly not guarantee that any cognisance would be taken of it, nor that others would not be actively deterred from ‘paying attention’..

The range in which ‘matches’ were sought had so narrowed by 2010 that apart from RIch Santacoloma’s theory that the whole was a fake, and Dana Scott’s quiet investigation into English sources, there was only Pelling’s ‘Italian’ theory – which certainly had merit – and the then wholly speculative theory of a ‘Germanic character’.

What has seen the last become most dominant is not any superior level of proof or argument but determined refusal to acknowledge, and sometimes persistent efforts to ‘shut down’ alternatives. One may be invited to be more flexible and join the majority; one may find oneself hounded out of forums. But the easiest means is simpler. New information is judged simply by whether or not it suits the theory espoused.

So – Alain Touwaide once said the manuscript recalled the form of Byzantine manuals of medicine-and-magic, iatrosophia.  Apart from picking up and repeating that word a little, the conservatives effectively ignored that lead. It couldn’t be connected with a Latin-centred theory.  That it might be directly connected to the manuscript’s history scarcely mattered to a majority; that lead was apparently dropped just as so many others have been.  Such as those offered by Panofsky in 1932.

We would never find employed elsewhere, today, assumptions and methods as simplistic as those habitual to the conservatives in Voynich studies,  if the study were aimed at discovering where, and when,  imagery was first enunciated – in the hope of identifying the origins of unread accompanying text.

It is a given community’s ways of seeing, and creating mental concepts which informs  expression of those concepts, whether in the drawn line or the written.  Again, this is an understanding of which one finds scant trace in Voynich writings and to be fair, the aim of most, today, is less to investigate the primary document than to assist in the erection of ever more elaborate theoretical superstructure on a foundation no more solid than it was in the 1930s. And from a distance, or seen from their own perspective, the result is most impressive.  That it has failed to shed light on a single phrase of the original text seems almost irrelevant to those involved. The possibility of fundamental errors in the foundation is considered, by the conservatives, a ludicrous notion.

And since ‘match the picture’ was the only approach which occurred to the Friedmans, so it descended via d’Imperio, into the most conservative Voynich tradition after about 2004, when theory-promotion came to be perceived as having higher priority than open investigation of the primary artefact. In other words, the attitude shifted from an aim to learn, to an aim to convince. And the theories to which their support was lent were variants of the ‘Latin product’ theory.

Neither Wilfrid Voynich, nor William Friedman ever imagined otherwise.  Each presumed it also the original product of some individual Latin author.  Their doing so is quite directly connected to what we should now describe as ‘social Darwinism’ but  for them it was no ideology espoused, but an expression of then ubiquitous attitudes believed given scientific validation by academic works of the Anglo-German school.  It was not ‘racialism’ in the political sense but a sort of social snobbery which expressed itself in an absolute certainty that the Anglo-German represented the highest pinnacle of any intellectual history,as the Renaissance Italian and the classical tradition occupied that of any history of art.

Social snobbery.

I touched on this matter in an earlier post, with regard to an academic board’s reasons for rejecting William Friedman’s application for funding.  From those comments. and from the angry responses of d’Imperio and Elizebeth Friedman,  two things became clear: first, that the Friedmans had no aim of understanding why the manuscript in format, script, images and text does not conform to the Latin norm, but began rather by assuming it did; that was “underneath it all” an ordinary product of the Latin tradition and so dismissing all the obvious evidence of divergence from Latin norms  by the simple expedient of attributing them to the incompetence or intentional deceit  of some individual (and imaginary) Latin Christian ‘author’ and/or ‘artist’.  Later writers would add to this imaginary character such additional flaws and motives as  sexual obsession, insanity, or ‘artistic creativity’. to explain why he didn’t draw like a “proper European”.

Thus the hunt continued only within the parameters of Latin manuscripts – just the one medium – for ‘matches’, and the later conservative camp has further limited their hunt for ‘matches’ to regions of a (fluidly defined)  ‘German-influenced culture’ –  though occasionally referencing sculpture and (less often) other media. Among the very few images congenial to a Latin theory (more-or-less) are the series of emblems filling the centres of these supposedly  ‘astrological’ diagrams. Isolated form their context, and together covering less than the area of a single folio, they have been constantly – almost obsessively – asserted ‘matched’ by items selected to support the ‘Germanic’ theory.

I mean it quite literally when I say that it was impossible for either Wilfrid Voynich or William Friedman to contemplate the work’s content as expressing other than  Latin (western Christian) culture – despite its anomalous structure, page-layout, incomprehensible written text and unintelligible images .

Nor could they conceive the possibility that it might embody work of a group of persons whose names were never recorded.

Each man, for his own reason, had to suppose the content  ‘important’ and in terms of his own time and environment that meant European and preferably Anglo-German, and scientific – which implied an ‘author’. Both opted for the English.  My point is not so much that they were wrong; but that if they were wrong, their own first premises and methods adopted surely prevented their ever discovering the fact.

Wilfrid Voynich was born in 1865 in Poland, and William Friedman in Moldava in 1891. Both had Jewish heritage. But their attitudes were chiefly formed by values and attitudes pervasive in English and American society of their time. Wilfrid came to England as an adult; Friedman to America as an infant.

In Wilfrid’s case, to think the work other than by a Latin (western Christian) author would have meant he could expect very few potential buyers and no great price for it.

In William’s case, to suppose any non-Latin origin and content would be to render his interest in the manuscript devoid of all merit and incur ridicule.   On the ‘Latin author’ theory depended his idea of a herculean struggle, a battle of superior minds, where the author of the ‘ciphertext’ would ultimately yield to Friedman’s superior intellect and scientific cryptological techniques. The same provided his grounds for  using the powers of the NSA to obtain various private documents and earlier-denied interviews. Importance was then defined by ethnicity,  social position and by ‘scientific’ character. Today, we are free to think – for example – that it could be the notebook of an anonymous North African trader.  In England or in America, during the first half of the twentieth century, even to consider that idea was impossible without losing face.

Wilfrid provided glittering names to adorn his sales’ pitch:  Roger Bacon represented European Science; John Dee, ‘sanitised’ European Magic; and of course Rudolf II, the mad emperor, Science, Magic and social status.

The only method which occurred to the Friedmans, in regard to the manuscript’s images, was therefore to hunt Latin manuscripts for ‘matches’ and as late as the 1920s (by which time Wilfrid was 55 and William almost 30), and given their social and intellectual environment and assumptions made, the method would have appeared an obvious and sensible approach to amateurs. It continued be the only method used by the Friedman groups,  and in that way was inherited and is still maintained by today’s conservatives.

As was the case half a century ago, the malleable figure of some individual  ‘author/artist’ continues to see dismissed even the most obvious discrepancies between a proposed ‘match’ and the original.   Points of perceived similarity are all the commentary; disparities are dismissed as due to individual whim, incompetence, or intention to deceive – whichever happens to sound most plausible. In fact, objection is rarely raised; newcomers soon learn that negative comments are to be directed only to those who fail to support the ‘German cultural product’ theory; those supporting it are tender and well-meaning souls working for the common good.

So – by imposing the known intention of a Latin image upon a detail from the Voynich manuscript and on no better basis than ‘like-ness’ asserted, the reader was instructed how to interpret the latter, whose intended meaning was (and usually remained) unknown. Conservatives’ commentary might elaborate upon the Latin image, its history and meaning and so forth  while the other was ignored beyond the assertion it was ‘matched’.

Though today employment of such simplistic method may seem astounding to many scholars it remains, by and large,  routine in Voynich writings.

Nor do any of the present conservatives seem aware of the anachronism implied by supposing  a medieval draughtsman might have – in effect – invented abstractionism and expressionism.   Nor of the  anachronism presented by tacitly assuming the aim of the ‘artist’ was a level of realism we first see emerge in some parts of Europe (and first in  Flemish works) from about the 1440s.*  That those trained primarily in botanical science should expect all drawings to strive for scientific ‘realism’ is understandable, more or less, and that expectation has regularly prevented the botanists from making valid contributions to the study.  They do not so much ask ‘what mental contstruct is here given form, and how do the stylistic features support a given reading’, but simply adopt the old ‘would-have-if-he-could-have’ idea found in  earlier works such as O’Neill’s.

*though an important paper of 1932 recognised a prefiguring in Gothic art (so called). See  D. Jalabert, “La flore gothique: ses origines, son evolution du xiie au xve siecle,” Bulletin monumental, XCI (1932), I81-246.

I won’t cite any contemporary Voynich writer in illustrating this  ‘match the picture’ habit.  The reader will find little else online. Instead, I offer an analogy to illustrate the added distortion caused by imagining that all research must aim at supporting some theory.

Let us suppose I have a theory of Turkish origin for the content, but follow the conservative Voynich writers’ practice.  I would then first define the picture by some object which I imagine present -thus defining the subject by one object, in a way anathema to modern iconological studies.

The reader is then presented with a composite image of the following sort, perhaps with – but usually without –  commentary proving both images reflect comparable historical and cultural environment and thus stylistics.  As you see, I’ve here ignored stylistics completely:

A Voynichero would then assert this ‘match’ proves the plant on folio 10r  meant for a rose, and that it supports a theory of Turkish origin.

If the newcomer is inclined to think I exaggerate; that no method so ludicrous could survive in the twenty-first century, I’ll say again… it is easy enough to find precisely the same method in the majority of present-day Voynich writings.


3. Simple assertion. (800 wds)

To find  assertions made about the content in this manuscript and presented with no supporting evidence or documentation except perhaps a ‘match the picture’ exercise, is not in the least unusual.  What is extraordinary is that such practice is still considered both normal and ‘commonsense’ by so many: it is another Voynich tradition.

Just so, Wilfrid Voynich asserted his ‘author’ an  English franciscan friar and all the content ‘science’.  In the 1940s O’Neill felt it enough to assert that an image in the manuscript depicted (albeit ‘badly’) the American sunflower.  In the 1970s Professor Brumbaugh’s curiously naive commentaries constantly resort to bald assertions and adopt others’ unexamined. In a paper published by the Courtauld Institute in 1976, for example, Brumbaugh wrote:

“From an alphabet including J, to a fifteenth-century style of two-handed clock, one detail after points to a later date.  What is most conclusive, however, is Hugh O’Neill’s identification in two illustrations of plants first brought to Europe by Columbus in I492.  (I have subsequently identified two more brought by Columbus in 1493). The [manuscript’s] date is therefore about 1500 at the earliest.”

  • Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150.

Despite re-locating the theoretical subject of some plant-pictures to the new world, the presumption of western Christian (i.e.) Latin origin and/or mediation remained unexamined, and the simplistic practice of ‘match the picture’ informs Brumbaugh’s work, having by then been normalised in this study by the previous decades’ example.

It is important to note that none of Brumbaugh’s assertions above references an independent or scholarly source in justification.  He is not trying to demonstrate that his conclusions are valid; we are expected to believe, not to cross-examine.   This habit of treating study of the Voynich manuscript as something rightly isolated from any borader comparative studies – whether of manuscripts, art, cultures, sciences, or technologies  further aided retention of poor method.  The footnotes in that quoted passage (notes 4-6 in the original) read:

  1. The Beinecke Catalogue suggests a 15th- century date. The costume of the medallion of the Sagittarius map; the two-handed clock on fol. 85; the style of Arabic numerals, for example in the margin of fol. 49r; a cipher box using distinct J, V, and W; all indicate that the date is at least that late.
  2. O’Neill, 1944
  3. If I am right in reading the labels of two giant, exotic roots as ‘Cassava’. [Note: I have been unable to confirm Brumbaugh’s belief that Columbus returned to Europe with Cassava plants.  Columbus certainly ate cassava bread in the region of Hispaniola. –D)

It is regrettable that the urge to ‘normalise’ the matter within Beinecke MS 408 has not only maintained the old assumptions and methodologies, with the latter a positive drag on research, but that the post 2004 productions of  conservative writers have striven to persuade the public that this distinctly unsettling artefact may be regarded as just a ‘funny old herbal’ and other ‘funny-looking’ but really just comfortable ‘normal’ images, with ‘normal’ still defined as mainstream medieval Christian;  that images which include star-shapes shall be deemed just slightly eccentric versions of ‘science or superstition’  and that the various unclothed female figures are just a slightly unusual depictions of  Christian saints(!!).

A Biedermeier Voynich, so to speak.

We are reassurred, like some customer in a curiosity shop, that an unsettling and unidentifiable object is really just a bit old, but otherwise not at all unusual when you came down to it.

Of course, the original manuscript remains very unsettling indeed,  very far from ordinary and not at all the sort of thing  customers have ever found comfortable.

Not even the best informed specialists and connoisseurs claimed to understand it or bought it from Wilfrid; not the manuscript nor (one suspects) his story.     Wilfrid believed it not just ‘ordinary Latin’ but an extraordinarily important work of European scientific history, creating for it the sort of history normally attractive to contemporary collectors, but from 1912 to his death in 1930 he never found a buyer.

None wanted it after 1930, either, and it was more than thirty years later still that a well-connected dealer in manuscripts purchased it from Wildrid’s heirs.   He then tried, also without success, to sell it on.  After eight years’ failure, he gave it gratis to Yale in 1969.  And there it remains, in the Beinecke library.

Its fame today is chiefly due to the internet and a television documentary.

Erwin Panofsky didn’t try to fudge, in 1932.  He said plainly that apart from one of those diagrams – which he associated with one in a Spanish manuscript – the Voynich manuscript was unlike any known to him.

He was able to offer a general provenance some of the imagery by its stylistics, identify the month-names as in a southern French dialect, and to date correctly the period during which the present manuscript was manufactured, but  he never claimed to read the meaning in any of it.

Think about it. Erwin Panofsky could not read the images.


4. ‘Normalising’ the exceptional. (900 wds)

That the Friedmans should imagine the series of diagrams astrological is understandable. And the idea may, one day, be proven true.

But neither did the Freidmans bend their backs (and the primary evidence) to  ‘normalise’ the content in terms of Latin manuscript art.  They simply presumed it was ‘underneath it all’ a version of  some ‘normal’ manuscript and for them, of course,  ‘the norm’ was western Christian European.

Such presumption is not unknown even today.  A book may appear with some  title as ‘A history of the medieval wool trade’ though it considers none but the trade between Norwich and Flanders; or a ‘History of navigation’ which begins from the European adoption of the sextant,ignoring the previous 40,000 years or so.  It is less usual today than twenty years ago to find a work entitled ‘Medieval Art’ in which none but Latin (western Christian) images are treated, but it does still happen.

Scholars tend today to consider the whole of the medieval Mediterranean a single pool of cross-cultural and economic interaction.  The nineteenth century notion of a ‘white walled Europe’ is still assumed today in Voynich studies, with the work of individual writers effectively invigilated lest any begin looking too far beyond, or do so without allegiance to the conservative assumptions – such as that the central emblems in these diagrams constitute ‘a zodiac’ (by which the conservative means the astrologer’s tropical zodiac). The series of central emblems does not form a ‘zodiac’ but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that they might have been used  as if they did.  It is another question effectively unexplored – though I expect my saying so might cause annoyance in some quarters.

We have already noted that d’Imperio’s chapters, their titles and organisation evince ideas no longer considered valid and which are certainly behind the times in terms of modern scholarship.  They define ‘science’ in terms of the Latin European and associate ‘superstition’ with the non-Latin.  They also presume the ‘monitor at the gate’, the  authoritative Latin figure – again usually male – who, by the mere act of taking ‘foreign’ matter is deemed as it were to have sanitised it.  (Nor is it unknown for certain plagiarists to perceive their actions in a similar way).

That the formal scholarship of medieval Europe did expect alien matter to be vetted for heretical content accounts only for a small proportion of what passed easily back and forth through the Mediterranean.  Just as one example: the Indic water buffalo is reported numerous and valued in the Roman campania by 1154 and in that year Lawrence, a Cistercian of Clairvaux took ten of them home with him.  Writing towards 1306, Piero dei Crescenzi of Bologna commented “One kind of cattle, called buffaloes, are black, big, strong, and a bit unruly. They are not good for carts and plows, but when skillfully harnessed with chains of a certain sort they are used for pulling great loads overland. They love to loll in water.” No one stood at the gate of any ‘white wall’ to admit or prevent their entry, and where something the size of a buffalo may pass without formal mediation, so may information.

No earlier twentieth century account of how ‘Arab’ learning entered Latins’ horizons imagined it other  than  entering with official permission and that brought by the Jews is barely recognised in schemes of the European’s intellectual ‘ascent’.   Thus the usual role call:  Gerard of Cremona or, Constantine the African (after his conversion to Christianity) and so forth.

The truth is far less tidy, and far less bound to the Latin literature and literati.  Thanks to developments in cross-cultural and other studies, we are no longer much disturbed to learn that  knowledge of Indo-Arabic numerals and mathematics as likely entered first by the tradesman’s gate, perhaps  through a chain of Muslim-Jewish-European merchant-seamen rather than by any ‘official’ person or text, such as  Leonado of Pisa’s  Liber Abacus. We are also more open to the probability that knowledge of Islamic medicine was transmitted by multilingual Jewish physicians instructing apprenticed Latins, though it is only relatively recently that it has begun to dawn on us that Saliternan works, produced in Latin versions under the short line of Norman-Sicilian kings, may be no more than translations of an existing Arab-Byzantine-Jewish corpus prepared for the new Latin-speaking rulers and their Latin clerics.   Such changes in our thinking may not disturb the wider scholarly community, but one suspects they would cause distinct unease among the conservative Voynich writers.

The point is, of course, that in seeking to read the Voynich manuscript’s images and diagrams, one does well to ignore the traditional limits to research until solid investigation  – and not inherited presumption – provides a clearer understanding of what we’re dealing with.

After all, the aim of explaining the cultural and other indications offered by the images themselves should aim – surely – to help those trying to read the written text.

Statistical analyses of the written text are also invaluable because we have no certainty that the written text is not a translation in which the earlier imagery was closely copied.  To propose the opposite – that the original language was retained but the imagery invented late comes up against a long list of technical and cultural objections.  But that is for some other time.

Information about the Indic buffalo in medieval Europe from Lynn White Jr., ‘Indic Elements in the Iconography of Petrarch’s Trionfo della Morte’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Apr., 1974), pp. 201-221.


Today, in Voynich studies,  the phantom figure of an ‘author’ is much faded, but had remained the chief focus of study until at least 2011, as the present author can attest, having been obliged to ‘run the gauntlet’ on producing her evidence and reasoning for the work’s being  a compilation from diverse sources, and explaining the internal  evidence of alteration and additions to the material at several periods before the fifteenth-century copying -and pointing out that the series of emblems deemed a ‘zodiac’ did not constitute a zodiac series but were among the latest additions before copying, and among the handful expressed in terms commensurate with Latin conventions or, to put it another way, ‘in that visual language’.

She was obliged, also, to explain (with similar reaction) that the term ‘florilegium’ in medieval terms means a compilation of extracts, not an herbarium, and that mention of the European-Egyptian trade in a medieval context was not equivalent to having suggested that either Pharaohs or flying saucers had descended upon  Christian Europe.

Such news was not well received at the time, though some was later absorbed, as present writer can attest from both her earlier scars and later notes of efforts to re-use or re-create the results of her research.  🙂

[Aug. 17th 1:09pm] Two sentences deleted.  A reader wrongly imagined they referred to him, and since others might make the same mistake, I’ve removed them.



So now, with the past and present context sketched, I’ll next explain the case supporting that opinion of 1932, in terms of  structure and details, though passing over the obvious stylistic differences because the original opinion did.

The post following that will offer a  bibliography tracking this theme after 1932. I won’t claim it includes every mention of these diagrams, but since perception of them has not altered in any substantial since 1932, or alternatively since the 1970s, there isn’t much to be listed.

And finally, a summary of outstanding questions and issues in connection with these diagrams.

Expert opinion Myth versus materials science Pt.5a

Two previous:


Codicology  and conservation are technical disciplines and a specialist’s opinion must be regarded as expert opinion.  (See previous post)

As one writer said of codicology:

…. The vast variety of binding techniques, the diversity of the material and the artistic element demand deep understanding of books ….

I’d ask readers to keep that in mind, and the fact that in what follows, I am not criticising the technical matter in the Yale facsimile edition essay ‘Physical Materials’ but objecting to certain editorialising comment inserted into that technical essay.  Nor is my point that this person or that is wrong – but that the revisionist has to be aware that when the old myths meet scientific data at the coal-face, the myths don’t necessarily give way.

The  ‘editorialising hand’ who has inserted comments into the scientific report I will refer to as ‘e.h.’ Whose hand(s) these were is irrelevant; as we’ll see the problem is that in attempting to harmonise the new information with the speculative narratives, that editorialising hand does a disservice to the reader, the researcher and  – one might even argue – to Yale, under whose imprint the essay appears.  ‘

In this post, the issue concerns the text-block’s binding and before going further I want to make clear that I’m not a codicologist, though I’ve had laboratory experience in the analysis of materials  as part of my own field.

A good first introduction to bookbinding, its history and materials is found in a booklet the Beinecke published for its ‘Travelling scriptorium‘ project.

  • [pdf] Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts: Bookbinding terms, materials, methods and models, (issued by) Special Collections Conservation Preservation Department, Yale University Library (February 2015).

To gain an idea of how much complex matter has been condensed to form the booklet, Szirmai’s book still serves as a kind of ‘conservator’s bible’.

  • J.A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. 

Other sources:

  • Georgios Boudalis (, eds.), Historical Book Binding Techniques in Conservation (2016).
  • A general guide by The British Library [pdf]. David Pearson, English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800, chapter 2,
  • PJM Marks, The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques. A comprehensive glossary by Don Etherington and Matt T Roberts
  • [pdf] David Pearson, John Mumford, Alison Walker, Bookbindings (British Library Preservation Guide)



The textblock’s binding

It doesn’t take much experience before you get used to the way medieval manuscripts are described in most catalogues.  Some give more, and others less detail but I think few include as much speculative matter and sheer guesswork as the Beinecke’s description of the Voynich manuscript’s content.  The description of its codicology is nearer the norm.

The usual form for a manuscript runs something like this: ‘Origin: southern France or  Spain’;  Date: Fourteenth century.  Binding: sixteenth century Italian’.. ”    The description is normally brief, direct and where precision isn’t possible the parameters are given (e.g. southern France or northern Spain”.)

In the Yale facsimile essay, the text-block’s binding isn’t described in that way, but uses a curiously convoluted expression:

…quires held together in a binding technique typically in use in the 15thC “.

Why not just  ‘textblock binding – 15thC’?  – because that is obviously the impression which the writer wants readers to take.   When a curious phrasing such as this occurs, implying but not saying the binding is fifteenth century, the revisionist must ask why, and what distinction is implied here between  ‘ binding’ and ‘binding technique in use’…  and why no location is offered.

In general terms, we can say that the manuscript’s binder had been trained in European style, a style also adopted for Armenian manuscripts after the Crusader period.  In terms of bookbinding styles, the period from the 8th-12thC is termed ‘Carolingian’; overlapping with the ‘Romaneque’ which is dated mid-11thC to the end of the 14thC, overlapped again by the ‘Gothic’ which is dated early 14thC – 17thC.

The European (or ‘Latin’) style is distinguished by the use of sewing supports: strips of material which support the threads binding the quires of the textblock together.

But when we look at the sewing supports of the Voynich manuscript, we see that they are not ‘typically 15thC European’ at all.

See also

Sewing supports were normally made of skin, but those in the Voynich manuscript are made of bast-fibre which the scientific crew identified as probably flax.

The technical study is clear that, on this point at least, the binding is not ‘typically fifteenth century’.  It is the editorialising hand which is responsible for blurring that information by using the roundabout phrase we saw above: ‘a binding technique typically in use in the 15thC’ .

How unusual are flax supports for the fifteenth century?

Below is a diagram from the Beinecke’s ‘Travelling Scriptorium’ booklet’s section on Gothic Romanesque bindings, which are dated (from the second half of the 11thC – end of the 14thC).

It mentions vegetable-fibre supports, but adds the slightly cryptic “later”.

In the British Library’s bookbinding guide there is no mention of vegetable-fibre supports other than in connection with books made after about 1650:

The supports in early books are commonly strips of leather or tawed skin, and from the mid-seventeenth century cords made of cotton, linen, hemp or silk were used.

So although the samples of vellum which were radiocarbon dated gave a range of 1404-1438 (within the ‘Gothic’ period in bookbinders’ terms), there must be some question about whether or not the quires were bound at that time.

And now we find another editorialising, soothing, and non-specific comment by ‘e.h.’ which effectively says, ‘Ah, well, no… not typically fifteenth-century, but don’t you worry about that’.  It says:

…  it is not unheard of for a fifteenth-century  manuscript to be sewn onto flax supports, as the Voynich manuscript is, [but] it is less usual than the use of leather supports.

So now having first been guided to think the binding ‘typically 15thC’, we are shepherded towards thinking it merely ‘less usual’ – by way of “not-unheard-of'”, a phase which usually means ‘very rare’.

The message from ‘e.h.’  seems to be – in effect- that we shouldn’t worry our little heads about the fact that the scientific study doesn’t match up with the theoretical narratives.   ‘e.h.’ simply asserts it is just ‘less usual’ without providing a single comparative instance to justify that statement.   What is one to think? That vegetable-fibre supports are just ‘less usual’ or that they are very unusual but ‘not unheard of’ or that they are really ‘typically in use in the fifteenth century?

The Grove Encyclopaedia’s entry under ‘Bookbinding’ describes  tawed leather as the most common form of support from the eleventh to sixteenth century, referring in general to ‘Carolingian bindings’ as using flax supports (not just those found in St.Gall by Szirmai) and in that context adds in passing that “cords were re-introduced in the fifteenth century” though without any details or added comment.

  • Gerald W. R. Ward (ed.), The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art (2008) p.42.

What is being omitted is anything explaining the significance of this disparity.  Might it tell us more about where the manuscript was made, or by whom?

So the revisionist him/herself must ask the questions and hope to find informed answers elsewhere, and from an up-to-date specialist, for preference.  This is not as easy as it might once have been.  Over the past fifteen years or so, the manuscript has become notorious: less for its inherent difficulty than for the fact that a few hard-core theorists aren’t keen on specialists who have no interest in becoming a ‘team players’.  A specialist might comment in private but few for publication.

Finally,  I decided to ask this question about how ‘not unheard of’ flax supports are at  Erik Kwakkel’s codicology blog.  To keep other readers’ attention on it as a technical question about codicology, I phrased it in neutral terms – that is, without  the ‘V’ word.

Professor Kwakkel was kind enough to respond himself (also letting me know that Szirmai’s book might be had through Scribd):

I did not know anything about flax used for this purpose, but your query prompted me to consult Szirmai … and he discusses the materials at various locations. At [p.]117, importantly, while discussing Carolingian bindings, he describes a sample research he undertook based on St Gall manuscripts, 9th-12th. Flax is found in 15 samples. More data at p. 190. I would check that out.

 Carolingian? As said above, in bookbinding terms the Carolingian period is 8thC -12thC .  Not ‘typical 15thC’.

We can also be pretty sure that if Prof. Kwakkel has never encountered flax sewing supports, that ‘e.h.’s    “not-unheard-of”  may be interpreted as “extremely unusual indeed“t least until someone produces fifteenth-century examples. And they should prove interesting and informative,

Meanwhile it seems that the use of  vegetable fibre sewing-supports is normally associated with either  the Carolingian period (8th-12thC) or with books of the early modern period “from the mid-seventeenth century onwards”.

In that case, to argue that they were also used … somewhere or other, by some binders or other… in the fifteenth century, ‘e.h.’ would have done better to cite examples than trying, as s/he did, to slide over this anomaly, another among the many which the manuscript presents.

Why ‘e.h.’ took the other course, one can only guess.  I certainly don’t imagine that the Beinecke staff sit huddled about in cowls  ‘conspiring’ to delude the public.

Perhaps ‘e.h.’ has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to maintain the old narratives found fossilised in the Beinecke’s sixty-year old catalogue entry and  its current website ‘Introduction’ – labouring to harmonise those ‘canonised myths’ with the new technical information that offers objections to those stories.  But the new information is precisely what we need to know what to discard.

Reading through the ‘Physical Materials’ essay, the editorialising comments evoke both sympathy for that dilemma and a certain quiet outrage.   ‘e.h.’ seems to imagine readers as if members of a family among whom any difference of opinion is on par with a personal quarrel, and ‘e.h.’ in the role of parent, keeping everything nice and calm, creating a ‘middle ground’.

Hence – the radiocarbon dating has the vellum early fifteenth century, so while the binding is far from being ‘typically fifteenth century’  ‘e.h.’ finds a nice middle way:  ‘binding technique typically in use in the fifteenth century’.  It really won’t do.

But should anyone notice the ‘fudge’ and what it implies that the sewing-supports are not skin, but fibre… well, ok. (says ‘e.h.’) but they are still sort of fifteenth century… well, ‘not unheard of’… just ‘less usual’.

But that does not seem to be true, does it?

No mention in Szirmai, or in any other reference that I could find…  but I’m not a codicologist.  If anyone locates some, do let us know.  We may learn a little more about where the manuscript was made.

It seems to me that what was better to  have been said – perhaps ought to have been said  –  if ‘e.h.’ had to editorialise at all – is that  Voynich manuscript’s bookblock is not bound in the way typical of fifteenth-century European manuscripts, but its use of vegetable fibre for the sewing supports finds comparison in Carolingian-period manuscripts and again in the seventeenth-century style for binding books. And – if ‘e.h.’ knew of another instance, what it was, and where that manuscript was bound.

Doubtless there is something about the  binding ‘technique’  found in common with fifteenth-century bindings, but we’re left to guess what that might be.  The number or distance of stations, perhaps?  Type of stitch?

But when ‘e.h.’s efforts to ‘harmonise’ cross the line from just soothing noises to plain misrepresentation of fact, it’s a bit much.

Another interpolation in the scientific report says that the manuscript “was known to have been in Rudolf’s library”.   Now, that’s just not true.  No-one ever claimed to have seen it there and no document has ever been found from Rudolf’s archives (or anywhere else) which substantiates that rumour.   At this point in the ‘Physical Materials’ essay  the revisionist takes their pencil and writes in the margin something along these lines:

“a third-hand rumour, unsubstantiated by the person relating it, or by any evidence since discovered.  The  allegation is that Mnishovsky repeated a rumour to the effect that Rudolf  allegedly had paid the person who brought the manuscript to Prague the sum of 600 ducats, had owned it, and that the text was by Roger Bacon, the Englishman etc.  To date, no documentary or other evidence supports any item of those three. See Marci letter of 1665/6”.

Why did ‘e.h.’ feel it necessary to insert that reference to Rudolf into the scientific report, whose subject is the manuscript’s pigments, inks and binding?  I don’t believe that anyone is trying to argue that the vellum, inks, pigments or binding are sixteenth or seventeenth-century… are they?

No, but as ‘e.h.’ might have realised, this issue with the sewing supports does have the potential to become a can of worms.

If a theorist were to opt for the ‘seventeenth-century’ use of flax sewing supports over the ‘Carolingian’,  it might raise doubt as to whether our present manuscript has just the same form as that owned by  Jakub  Hořčický.   Baresch does suggest that his volume was bound already, calling it a ‘book’ when writing to Athanasius Kircher in  c.1635-6:

“…And so I ordered a certain old book to be transcribed in part, with the writing closely imitated (the bearer of this letter will inform you that he saw it with his own eyes). A year and a half ago I sent that writing to your Reverence….. “

He doesn’t say how much was copied, or whether that bound, or even if the book was disbound to make the copies, but the technical essay says there is no sign of the quires’ having been bound earlier.  It is a surprising finding, given that the map seems to have been rebound, and the disorder observed in the manuscript has often been speculated a result of disbinding and rebinding.  But there you are.

And against any theory of a  ‘seventeenth-century binding’  I should think the fact that Wilfrid attributed the manuscript to the thirteenth century would be a fair argument.  Nor was his opinion denied by many specialists of that time, including  E. P. Goldschmidt, author of a two volume study on the subject:

  • E.Ph. Goldschmidt, Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection.

That work was first published in 1928, but so well thought of that Degraaf reprinted in it a hard-back cased edition forty years later.

I’m content to accept the fifteenth-century dating for the ‘standard quires’, but have long thought the content suggests an effort at very close reproduction of material which pre-dates that period.

Who knows? Perhaps the persons told to ‘copy exactly’ copied the binding as exactly as they could, too.

Who knows?  No-one knows yet, and it won’t help us know more to do what ‘e.h.’ has done and obscure the significance of  newer and better information by ‘smoothing over’ the difference between that information and the old, tired guesses.

To treat fairly with researchers – and with those trusting the ‘Yale’ imprint when buying their copy of the facsimile edition –  accurate information, and accurate explanations of its significance is what the study needs.


Postscript –

re ‘linen or hemp’,  Szirmai notes (n.9  p.91) that while “There are no non-destructive methods available to distinguish between flax and hemp; the drying twist test (Textile institute 1985 p. 225) can be scaled down and carried out under a low-power microscope, but it requires a sample of a number of elementary fibres of 20 to 30 mm length.

  • Brenda Collins and Philip Ollerenshaw (eds.), The European Linen Industry in Historical Perspective. Oxford University Press, (2003).
  • Bert dewilde, Flax in Flanders throughout the centuries, history technical evolution folkore (1999).
  • The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, (2003).

edited and corrections made – 12th May 2019.

The ‘Physical Materials Essay’… to be continued…