Skies above: Chronological Strata – Pt.1

Two previous:

Header image – detail from a portrait of Gian Francesco II Gonzaga.

STOP PRESS (Feb. 6th., 2020) – anyone who decided to check out the ‘horoscopic charts’ rumour… you can drop it.  A specialist in the history of astrology, astronomy and cosmology has just said plainly that that the Voynich month-folios do not accord with any type of ‘horoscopic chart’.

I’m waiting on his permission to quote and instructions on his preferred form for the acknowledgement.

I guess whoever dreamed up that “horoscopic charts” fiction – sorry,  ‘theory’ –  just didn’t care too much if it was true or not.

___________

 

 The ‘Skies above’ series so far..  transmission affect

We have seen that in Mediterranean art, and then in that of western Europe to 1438,  representation of the unclothed female body occurs within certain definable limits both in terms of regions and of eras  and further that Panofsky had pointed out – rightly, and as early as 1932 –  that in the art of western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) the unclothed ‘shapely’ female form does not occur until the fifteenth century.

In 1932, while he still presumed the whole to be (as Wilfrid had asserted since 1912) the work of a single western author, Panofsky altered his date for the manuscript from ‘perhaps’ the thirteenth century on to the first decades of the fifteenth, precisely because of its ‘shapely ladies’ and its palette, as Anne Nill reported:

[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century … but as he came to the female figures in connection with the colours used in the manuscript he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!

(for details, see post of Feb. 13th.2019).

However, and before the manuscript had been radiocarbon dated,  Panofsky had woken to the possibility that the date for composition of the content and that for manufacture of our present manuscript might be separated by a considerable (if unspecified) length of time – in other words, that it was not an autograph at all. He actually widened the implied gap between content and manufacture in what John Tiltman reports as a direct communication – presumably offered in the 1950s but some time after Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman.

In a later paper, Tiltman writes,:

Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.

  • [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.

Had the manuscript been both manufactured and first composed  “within twenty years of 1500” it might (in theory) have been possible, still, to argue the “shapely ladies” sections, including the month-folios, a product of Latin culture, but Panofsky clearly considered the content ‘much’ older than 1480-1520 and having as we now do, a radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and understanding that the clothing in our present copy is a late addition to it, so  the implication is unavoidable that the ‘ladies’ folios had their origins somewhere else.  “Much earlier” does not mean a few decades; in contemporary usage, in this context, it implied the content’s origin  “centuries older” – taking us back to before the fifteenth century and emergence of shapely unclothed female forms in western European art.  I  agree – although, for reasons explained in the post of January 10th, I  do ascribe the ‘lewd’ additions to the month-folios to some later draughtsman during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

The implication of Panofsky’s statements when considered in sequence, went unnoticed and in 2009 even to speak of the work as a compendium whose material the copyists had from  different exemplars was to meet with uproar and derision, as the present writer discovered.  Only during the past four of five years have we seen a lessening of the old emphasis on  ‘the author” and growing (if oscillating) acceptance of the manuscript as a compilation..

Gian Francesco II Gonzaga

Traditionalists had simply assumed the manuscript an autograph – that is a manuscript inscribed by a single ‘author’ – because there had always been ‘an author’ in the Wilrid-Friedman tradition, and, until a few years ago,  “naming the Latin author” was still the chief preoccupation.  For the core-conservatives, who emerged in the early 2000s, and gained an increasingly louder voice from 2010, there had to be an ‘author’ and preferably one who was ‘central European’ and connected in some way to the Imperial line.    The cryptographers wanted ‘an author’ for different reasons, chiefly because Friedman had framed engagement with the manuscript in terms of a battle of wits between himself and some brilliantly ingenious Renaissance male. The type certainly existed. See e.g.

For the revisionist, though, the more important point is that any substantial gap between first enunciation of an image and its subsequent copying provides evidence of transmission and this can be very helpful in establishing origin for the first enunciation and thus the image’s intended meaning.  Of what this may imply  for the written part of this text, we’ll speak later. Much depends on whether a section’s written text is as old as first enunciation of its images.

 

Transmission affect.

Shifts from one historico-cultural context to another leaves evidence of that event  even if the older image is one revived in the same region.   Think ‘gothic revival’ for an obvious example.  In the same way, a Roman copy  of a classical Greek statue will evince both the maker’s ‘Roman’ character and that the model had been made by an older Greek; in a nineteenth century Englishman’s copy of an Egyptian image we see both the nineteenth-century Englishman’s way of seeing and a hint of the Egyptian scribe’s.   ‘Ways of seeing’ are the result of a specific time, place and community and are extremely difficult to erase, replace, or imitate precisely ..  as any forger will tell you.  The later copy points us to the earlier place and time of origin… if you know what you’re looking at.

(and this, by the way, is where most theoretical narratives for the Voynich manuscript fail; they assume the images infinitely compliant – as Aztec one day, German the next, Italian the day after, or sixteenth-century or nineteenth century…)

Very little of the  Voynich manuscript’s imagery “reads” easily for people accustomed to our present, European, tradition –  because the majority aren’t expressions in that tradition. Conversely, the reason that some few details – such as the late-added clothing, the central emblems of the month-folios, or the supposed ‘castle’do seem accessible and for that very reason have received attention massively in excess of the percentage they represent.

To recognise  evidence of transmission is rarely as simple as recognising the difference between Opus Francigenum and ”gothic revival‘ and requires the viewer to know enough to recognise the significance of small details – which is exactly why forgers still manage to fool enough people, enough of the time, to make fortunes.   The important thing is that the copyist should have attempted to copy, rather than to replace or re-express the images from his exemplar.  We are fortunate that, in the Voynich manuscript, most of the images appear to be driven by a desire to copy  with near facsimile exactitude.  I say ‘most’ because we have to deal with various layers, some post-dating the vellum’s range and a few (chiefly in the bathy- section) where the copyist had thought he could improve on the original. The rapidity with which that hand vanishes re-inforces the overall sense that the initial desire of those involved in the fifteenth-century copy was to have everything copied exactly.  (The couple of ‘improvements’ in the bathy- section might, conceivably, also be due to some term’s being ambiguous  as e.g. ‘passage’, ‘basin’ or ‘channel’).

Then we see a different attitude affect the work – the one I call the ‘prude’.

 

Chronological layers. Separating layers of transmission affect is akin to the archaeologists’ removing a site’s levels of occupation and is similarly described as strata: in this case, chronological strata because one may assume changes in cultural context always attend the passage of time.

In this series, I’ve already mentioned some discernible strata.  As I read it, the sequence maps  – counting down from the latest/uppermost:

 

#1 – (Last quarter of the fifteenth century. post-production). the ‘lewd’ additions.

My reason for assigning these details – not all of which are lewd in themselves – to the last quarter of the fifteenth century were explained in the post of  January 10th., 2020.

In this context I might repeat an item from a couple of posts to Voynichimagery, namely that it might prove worthwhile to ask if there is any correlation between  items so marked in the month-folios and the  ‘Dies Aegyptiaci’.

At the time I wrote those posts I knew of no previous mention of that subject in Voynich studies – that is, no precedent – but afterwards a reader kindly let me know that someone had mentioned the topic “on the first mailing list or somewhere”.  I regret not having had time to follow up that remark.  For the record my posts to Voynich imagery were:1. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Lamentable days’ voynichimagery.com (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017) and    2. ‘Lamentable days’ -Recommended reading’, voynichimagery.com (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017).Among the references I provided then were…

  • Ginzel, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie , 1:204-12;
  • Sebastian Porceddu et al., “Evidence of Periodicity in Ancient Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18 (2008): 327-39
  • W. R. Dawson, “Some Observations on the Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 260-64;
  • E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), 224-228.

I bring up this point again here because at least one figure recovered from Naucratis shows an exaggerated pelt, comparable in its dimensions to that seen in the ‘Venus’ miniature in the Ambrosianus manuscript  – and we must never forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian. To quote from Neal’s translation of Baresch’s letter of 1637:

In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts …. He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.

Note – Neal reads Baresch’s phrasing as indicative of hypothesising but I read it as emphatic – “in fact, it is easily conceivable…’.  this being Baresch’s reaction to Kircher’s dismissive response  after receiving copied folios earlier sent by Baresch through a Jesuit known to both of them.  Kircher had published an appeal to the public for materials helpful in Kircher’s efforts to explain Egyptian hieroglyphics.

On Naukratis see..

  • Alexandra Villing et.al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt (a British Museum Catalogue). see the Museum’s website.
  • The ‘Egyptian days’ are otherwise termed Dies aegri , -atri , –mali , -maledicti, -ominosi , -infortunati and -tenebrosi. Some of the Latin sources appear to be accurate; though others are wildly imaginative/theoretical.

 

folio 116v.  It seems (at least to me) that a line of marginalia on folio 116v might belong to the same time (i.e. last quarter of the fifteenth century) and possibly to the same hand as the ‘lewd’ additions.  According to Anton Alipov’s translation the writer of the marginalia on folio 116v was inclined to coarse expressions .

 

Stratum #2 – the ‘prude’.  post-copying – possibly before binding ( c.1430)

It may be unfair to describe as a ‘prude’  the person who had some of the figures overlaid with heavy pigment.  Whether he was the painter, or an overseer, he may have been merely of sensitive or modest disposition.  Often called the ‘heavy’ painter, he is distinguished from the ‘light painter’ since Nick Pelling observed and commented on the distinction.

‘Light-‘ and ‘Heavy-‘ painter.

After drawing attention to the ‘heavy painter’ and ‘light painter’ painter  in Reeds’ mailing list; Pelling spoke of the matter in his book (2006) and thereafter in various posts to his blog as e.g. this from 2017,  in connection with ‘labellese’ and codiciological issues.   While this passage sounds as if Pelling is speaking about the central emblems, he means any figures on the specified diagrams. I’ve added clarification in square brackets:-

To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries [ i.e. April #1 diagram] was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces [March-] and dark Aries [April #2] appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.

quoted from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Labelese‘, ciphermysteries, September 3rd., 2017.

What Pelling had not realised was that his distinction sheds light on that broader issue of ‘authorship’.

 

Stratum #3 ‘The Modest’ clothing & the central emblems. (added in copying c. 1400-1430)

 

Before that final heavy overlay of pigment, some effort had been made to provide some of the bodies with covering using pen and light wash, but without altering the look of the limbs or obscuring the bodies’ form.

In my opinion, this pigment was added after completion of the original copy, but in all probability by the fifteenth-century copyists. I would not rule out the possibility that a precedent for the line-drawn clothing existed in the nearest exemplar (which I would date not later than the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century) but I’ll treat the style of this line-work in another post.

Central emblems

As I explained when treating the central emblems, in 2011-12, I think they are fifteenth-century additions gained from a tenth- or eleventh-century text available to the copyists, and preserved in Spain or in France, but in my view probably the latter and perhaps in Fleury. Just for the record I add details for two of my studies.

D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery, (Oct. 27th., 2012);  ‘Crosseyed feline and red splash’ ibid (Oct. 29th., 2012).

Postscript – (Feb. 8th. 2020) A reader upbraids me… and it is true that I should have mentioned here that signs of alteration within the central emblems allowed me to date their adoption to the fifteenth century. I have explained this, with the historical, archaeological and literary evidence in posts to voynichimagery.  There had been no analytical studies of the central emblems, but my conclusions failing to suit the traditionalist model, alternative efforts soon appeared.  I would maintain, still, however that e.g. the standing archer figure had its origins in the eastern Mediterranean, came west in c.10th-11thC and was first adapted for Christian use in glass made for the new ‘gothic’ windows, but the form of  its bow in the Voynich manuscript indicates a fifteenth-century adaptation, the bow being (as I explained from the usual sources) being  a particular,  light, wooden, double-lock crossbow used by marines and the type of mercenary  recorded in the rolls for Calais as a ‘Saggitario’.  The proverbial type continues to be known to as late as the the writings of Cervantes, he associating it with the earlier Aegean.

Since then, Koen Gheuens has provided a superb study of the way the calendar’s oddly formed ‘lobsters’ were disseminated from France through Alsace between the 13th-15thC.  Gheuens begins with  the books on astronomy which Scot produced in Sicily.  It should be kept in mind, though,  that before Scot went to Sicily, his study of mathematics and astonomy (including astrology) had been pursued in Canterbury and at the University of Paris, whence he travelled to Toledo and worked with the Toledo school of translators, completing in 1217 a translation of  al-Bitruji’s .Kitāb al-Hayʾah, entitling his translation De motibus celorum. Moses Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation was completed in 1259.  In the works which Scot produced in Sicily are images whose details show him familiar with non-mainstream astronomical lore, usually described as ‘Berber’.  Thus, connection to Scot is not inconsistent with Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and believing it presented as a Jewish work.  But do see:

Since 2012 there has been much put online which aims at illustrating German and/or French zodiacs, to support ‘national’ theories of the manuscript but  Gheuens’ post is one of the few pieces of original analytical research.  Darren Worley’s valuable work and his supplementary comments were published by the late Stephen Bax, whose site is now corrupted and all the comments erased.

Scot’s ‘de motibus‘ is included in a compilation (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 1) with a very tasty provenance.    Here’s a detail.

items from northe

Clothing –  dating and placing… 

Much that has been written about the clothing is flawed by an idea that what is found in one time or place has occurred nowhere else.  This idea infuses most of the  ‘national’ theories for the Voynich manuscript, focused as they are more on asserting their theory proven by such means and choosing so narrow a range of comparative material that no other view is possible.  There is also the habit of treating the heavy overpainting as if it can date or place the manuscript’s  ‘national character’.

To show why such methods are flawed, I’ll provide a contrasting example and since the unclothed figures also include some with headwear, demonstrate the fact that headwear of similar types  were to be found earlier and over a very wide geographic range.  The few seen below  show the padded band, the band-and-veil, and the ‘mural’ crown, in  works from north Africa to northern India, and from the 4thC BC to 3rdC AD.    In fact, it is the unclothed forms which tell us most about the text’s origin and character..

Upper register (left to right) Hellenistic figurine 3rdC BC;  Indo-Greek sculpture Gandharan period; coin of Carthage 350-270 BC.  detail from folio 80v. Lower register: detail from Louvre Ma590 ‘Three tyches’ dated c.160 AD

 

…. to be continued…

 

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 (et.al., 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)

and

 

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…