In 2015 I offered identifications for the plants represented on folio 43v* as (left) Bupleurum falcatum and (right) Bupleurum rotundiflolia, though only as a proposal from first-level sources, not as a research conclusion.
A modern botanical drawing of B. rotundifolia with B. falcatum is shown at right.
Later, I contrasted the style of drawing with two details from Latin herbals referenced by Marco Ponzi as comparisons for left-half of the drawing in folio 43v* (the plant-and-snake), noting how much more detail we find in the Voynich drawing for its ‘snake’, details so clearly informed by immediate knowledge that we are shown the Cerastes’ horns, long nose and – as I’ll add here – even the way the eye-ridge makes the eye seem semi-circular when seen from above, and how the horns appear like spines as extension of that ‘nose’, together the fact that its markings are generally invisible to a person happening on it, because the Cerastes lie buried in a depression in the earth and, indeed, with no more than eye, ‘nose’ and horns visible.
Marco Ponzi’s articles are (or were) published through the Medium site, under the title ‘Viridis Green’.
Added note (March 26th., 2022) I have reason to think the detail shown above (upper left) was wrongly labelled by the source I used. It may not be a ‘hornless cerastes’ but a different snake altogether. The Cerastes’ nose appears more noticeable when little else is visible above the sand. see the’Alamy’ image included among the comments under this post.
Although it seemed evident to me that this ‘reminder’ detail in folio 43v*, being placed close by the plant’s base, displays too much care and accuracy to have no purpose save ‘name-of-thing-equals-name-of-plant/value’ and realising, further, that the creature’s native range, combined with that of the associated plant’s, should add a little more light on the important questions outstanding about the plant-pictures’ antecedents, there were other questions having higher priority in 2015, and without more detailed investigation I felt nothing useful could be said about co-incident range.
A fairly recent comment turned me to the folio again.
This post isn’t more than a note of ‘work-in-progress’ yet one thing is quite clear – that unless my identification for the snake’s genus as Cerastes is wrong, the drawing’s origin cannot possibly be credited to western Christian Europe.
There, any ‘horned serpent’ figure would be drawn in very different style and present an imaginary figure from some system of religious or semi-religious thought. Instead, we have a nearly literal drawing for this creature, one which does not occur within Europe at all, not even in southern Spain or Sicily.
The detail is a fortunate exception to the rule in this manuscript where the majority of included drawings still show evidence of some earlier influence and its determined effort to avoid forming a naturalistic ‘portrait’ of any living creature. That attitude is not of Latin origin and was antithetical to the Latins’ worldview. In fact, that distinction is one of the keys which allows us to know, for example, that the month-folios’ diagrams come from origins different from emblems now seen in their centres.
It is that marked difference in information, attitude and stylistics, not any lack of objective skill, which led earlier generations of Voynich researchers, fixed on a Eurocentic theory, to assert the ‘artist’ had been childish, incompetent and so forth. To the best of my knowledge no qualified specialist in what today we call iconographic analysis, commented on Beinecke MS 408 between 1932 and the first decades of the present century. The person who seems to have first sensed the ‘foreignness’ in Voynich drawings spoke even before Panofsky and wrote, a little vaguely of what he had observed quite accurately, saying:
It is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences.
Robert Steele, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928) from the Abstract available online
As early as 1909, in editing the works of Roger Bacon, Steele had referred to a thirteenth-century work on medicine, translated by Wallis Budge. Steele speaks of it as ‘Syrian’ though it was a text of Nestorian origin written in Syriac.
The point was mentioned in an earlier post (here).
The other plant on folio 43v*, for which I proposed the identification Bupleurum rotundifolia is of less interest at present, and I’ll concentrate on the plant-and-snake.
I still consider the the details included as its salient features agree with the form for B. falcatum, yet that plant- identification presents problems if we are to associate that plant with the genus Cerastes. for each has a native range not native to the other.
I would suggest that the dilemma may be more apparent than real; that some other Bupleurum species is meant or that distinctions between plants made by taxonomists were not ones recognised by earlier and other peoples and therefore by their perceptions and vocabulary.
So though a modern botanist distinguishes (say) B.falcatum from B.lancifolia, the same word may have been applied to both by the language in which the maker formed his thoughts.
To see whether that possibility is contradicted or supported by those languages which were spoken, before 1440, across the geographic range in which Cerastes occur, and to find enough documentary evidence to maintain such an idea, would take far more work than I’m prepared to devote to that question. One piece of circumstantial evidence may support it.
In a modern website entitled “Egyptian-Arabian Endemic Plants”, a long list of plants, subdivided by genus and species and with scientific descriptions given, includes B. falcatum and specifies its range as:
“… east of the Nile Valley in Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, the extratropical part of the Arabian Peninsula, most of southern Palestine, part of Jordan, the southern part of the Syrian Desert and lower Mesopotamia where the boundary continues just north of Balad, Kuwait and the Bahrain Islands.”
‘Endemic’ in botanical terms means that a plant occurs naturally no-where else.
That site is clearly intended as a scientific survey; yet if we turn to another scientific source, Kew gardens’ information, states the range for B. falcatum as:
“Europe to Caucasus”.
For that southern range, it has several species of Bupleurum including B.lancifolia, whose range is said there to be:
“Algeria, Azores, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Iran, Iraq, Kriti, Kuwait, Lebanon-Syria, Libya, Madeira, Morocco, Palestine, Sinai, Spain, Transcaucasus, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Western Sahara” and now extinct in the Canary Islands.
This does co-incide with the native range for Cerastes’ species, of which there are only three. For readers’ convivence, I reproduce here a table included in a wiki article whose anonymous author cites as sole source for its information:
McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T., (1999) Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1. Washington, District of Columbia: Herpetologists’ League.
Cerastes, as you see, do not occur anywhere in mainland Europe, not even in southern Spain. One would have to travel into ‘oriental parts’ in order to find anyone who could represent these vipers with anything close to the accuracy we find on folio 43v*
I prefer to leave it to the botanists to decide which (if any) of the genus Bupleurum is the subject of the left-hand detail on folio 43v*. Of more interest to us is what this association between plant and viper tell us about the region implied, and in the context of those critical issues of maintenance before the plant-pictures’ transmission to the medieval west or, at least, to the medieval Mediterranean world’s common culture.
Here we are fortunate that the two principal species of Cerastes – the less venomous C. cerastes and the highly venomous C. gasperettii are not found together at all, the limits for each being given in the table above and that for C. gasperettii by following map (again thanks to a wiki author).
The map is a little generalised for we are told that C. cerastes and C. gasperettii do not share a common habitat though both are said to occur within Yemen. C. cerastes is called, in Egypt, el-ṭorîsha (حية الطريشة); and in Libyaum-Goron (ام قرون). One would hope that these or some other regional names for Cerastes are to be found in the written text on folio 43v*
Though I do not think the snake is drawn in sufficient detail on folio 43v* for us to decide on any Cerastes species in particular, it is another item in evidence – and there is a great deal of such evidence – that the content in Beineke MS 408’s plant-pictures is no product of any western Christian literary tradition. It is as well to remember that if any argument is to be made that tese images belong within the western ‘herbal’ manuscript tradition, the very limited range of texts on which that tradition relied must be shown to have a place within its lineage for the ‘Voynich plant book(s)’ – something which researches have utterly failed to do despite constant efforts and unwavering determination, for one hundred and ten years.
Newcomers may not be aware that the same point was made more obliquely and tactfully but quite clearly by John Tiltman, a man of unusually clear and balanced mind, fully seventy fifty years ago.
However, those interested only in plants for which a place was found in pharmacy might like to investigate some possibility that there might exist in some non-European corpus a receipt in which both viper and a Bupleurum (perhaps) both occur.
To attempt to fit the image into an ‘all-Latin-Christian’ theory, by asserting the image a product of imagination or metaphor, might be an attractive possibility for those so attached to an ‘all European Christian’ narrative for the manuscript that any means available must be taken to prevent its being discarded. For myself, I do not think one can ignore the style of drawing, the manifest clarity and accuracy of its detail, and such things as ignoring the natural markings on the creature to convey the vital information that it is the hidden ‘serpent on the path’ whose body is not seen, save its head, ‘nose’, an eye and the horns. Force-fitting the manuscript to a predetermined theory is not the best way to assist people whose time and efforts are being devoted to the written text. One cannot help but be wrong in some things, but why spoil their day with another dead-end ornament for a quasi-historical narrative whose first premises derive, still, from assertions made by Wilfrid Voynich as part of his romantic-fictional sales pitch delivered to a gathering of physicians in Philadelphia in 1921?
Medicinal snake & plant?Plague remedies?
This is a possibility though not one I’m inclined to rate highly. Still, it deserves mention for those who find the idea attractive.
Many in Europe believed the Black Death had come from Egypt, and was the same as one of those the plagues which the Bible says were inflicted on Egypt for the Pharaohs’ mistreatment of the Jews. Plague still regularly swept Europe during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it may have been for that reason that Baresch hoped the Voynich manuscript’s content would be not only ‘ancient’, ‘Egyptian’ and ‘gained from the orient’ and depicting exoti plants but also about medicine.
We do know that from about the time of Galen ‘viper’ was sometimes included in ‘cure-alls’ known as Theriac or Mithridatum, though it had not been part of the earliest, or true ‘Mithridatum’.
Added note (26th. March 2022): The European (hornless) viper, Vipera_berus, is described as “extremely widespread and can be found throughout most of Western Europe and as far as East Asia”
Our source for the addition of viper-flesh in ‘Theriac’ recipes is Galen, who attributes it to Andromachus (the Elder), a Cretan who had become Nero’s physician.
Andromachus’ recipe is said to have been couched in 174 lines of Greek verse. In the later fifteenth century, the Italian Saladino d’Ascoli, who graduated in medicine from Padua in 1431, composed a treatise entitled “Compendium Aromatariorum” in which says (folio 324r of the 1495 edition), respecting the ‘Galieni’ theriac: “Dico quod non est verum salua pace Nicolai quia Andromachus singularis medicus eam composuit.” d’Ascoli’s Compendium remained in print continually from 1488 – 1623. A good online biography for him is (here), and includes ia list of extant manuscripts and editions.
Added note (March 26th., 2022) – a loose translation would be ‘with all due respect to Nicholai [author of the earlier Antidotarium parvum], to call this ‘Galieni’ is a misnomer; the medicine was composed by the singular physician, Andromachus.
‘Mithridatum’ is named for Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus, who inherited his kingdom of Pontus on the Black Sea in 120 BC. For more historical detail see e.g.
Adrienne Mayor, ‘Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote’, Chapter 4 in her History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014). The chapter can be downloaded through ResearchGate.
Other sources to begin with:
Watson, G. Theriac and Mithridatium. Wellcome Historical Medical Library. William Clowes and Sons, Ltd. London (1966).
A few basic sources,courtesy of Science Direct. Looking over the list, I’d be inclined to leave aside “Placebo Studies (Double-blind Studies)” but I haven’t read it.
Medical uses of e.g. B. falcatum or B. rotundifolia, see also
WHO monographs (2004) – “not pharmacopoeial monographs, rather they are comprehensive scientific references for drug regulatory authorities, physicians, traditional health practitioners, pharmacists, manufacturers, research scientists and the general public”.
Oddly enough a lot of modern advertisements for traditional Asian (by which I mean east Asian and south-east Asian) medicine claim to employ root of B.falcatum, which isn’t native to that part of the world. Older sources refer instead to roots of B. rotundifolium.
That’s all so far. I’d be glad if anyone could direct me to multilingual glossaries for animal and for plant-names. Modern or pre-modern.
This post contains almost 3,000 words and several large jpg pictures.
The previous post ended by saying that, in publishing information about the drawing on folio 5v*, I had not followed my usual habit of beginning by parsing and then explaining a plant-picture, but instead began by providing readers with that single unifying thought which, in practice, became evident only as a conclusion. I’ll say now that the unifying theme for folio 5v* proved to be something I might express as ‘Preserving the ship’.
But in 2017 I felt it so important that readers appreciate something of the quality of mind informing that image on folio 5v* and so many others in Beinecke MS 408, and how distant it is from that which informs images expressing medieval Christian Europe’s ‘Latin’ mindset, that I devoted the first segment to that matter.
I first quoted as an analogy for the qualities informing the Voynich plant pictures (and very close analogy it is) part of H.D. F. Kitto’s description of the ancient Greeks’ language and the mutual interdependence of their thought, language and art. His contrasting the Greeks’ mentality and language with those of other ancient and modern peoples is also to the point.
.. in [their] language – in its very structure – are to be found that clarity and control, that command of structure… it is the nature of Greek to express with extreme accuracy not only the relation between ideas, but also shades of meaning. .. Both Greek and Latin have an architectural quality. But there is a significant difference between them. … Greek is well stocked with little words, conjunctions that hunt in couples or in packs, whose sole function is to make the structure clear. They act, as it were, as signposts… we always have a perfectly limpid and unambiguous ordering .. as if the speaker saw the ground-plan of his idea, and therefore of his sentence, in a flash, before he began to put it into words. It is the nature of the Greek language to be exact, subtle and clear. The imprecision and the lack of immediate perspicuity in which English occasionally deviates and from which German occasionally emerges, is quite foreign to Greek..
H.D.F Kitto, The Greeks.
[quoted with a blush]
Attempting, then, to illustrate this crucial difference in ‘mindset’ by using pictures, I re-considered the juxtaposition of a detail from folio 43v with two later Latin works, this being a group of three that had been included not long before in a post by Marco Ponzi and met no response save applause from the Voynicheros by the time I’d read it (see further below)
Soon after my own analytical commentary was posted online, I found my name now among those black-listed and denied further access to Marco’s posts. I mention this to explain not only the classic response of traditionalists to informed dissent, but why I’m unable to check the bibliographic details for that article today, or to add the usual direct link.
Though Marco described himself as an amateur translator of medieval Latin text, I found his readings and translations of Latin works to be of a professional standard and many students of the Voynich manuscript have reason to be grateful for what he has chosen to let them know.
I have no hesitation in recommending his translations to others, though I might add that Marco is a deeply committed – one might say dedicated – Voynich traditionalist. I’m given to understand that he is (or was) a member of good standing in a society dedicated to study of the succession of Holy Roman Emperors, but here again I have been unable to ask him directly whether this is so, or whether it influenced his becoming interested in Beinecke MS 408.
It is precisely because Marco is so competent in his own area, being meticulous and observant, that I felt his approaching the Voynich drawings as he did proved just how pervasive the inappropriate ‘matching’ method had become; it is inherited along with the ‘traditionalist’ narrative and found as early as the traditionalists’ foundation narratives of 1921 and their standard reference, d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma published in 1978 but which reflects, in this regard, the popular attitudes of Europeans more than half a century earlier.
In his original article Marco, had made a sort of triptych in which a detail from a drawing on folio 43 was set between two others taken from western Christian manuscripts made decades, or over a century, later than the range for Beinecke MS 408. To be exact, Marco took half the drawing on folio 43v, and I consider both parts intended to be read together.
In reproducing those examples, I’ve re-ordered them, left to right, into chronological order.
NOTE: The third example (below, far right) comes from a manuscript dated by its holding library to between c 1475 and c. 1525 AD, with comment given (here) that certain additions “may be by the first known owner, Konrad Peutinger, a German jurist, politician, diplomat, economist and humanist who studied law at the universities of Padua and Bologna. He may have acquired Harley MS 3736 during his studies or, later in his life, through his connections with Italian humanists”.
Addition (18th Feb. 2022). Thanks to Matthias Wille for providing link and full details of the image (above, centre). Macer de viribus herbarum, BSB Clm 5905, 1479, page 343 ( folio 170r ).
That Marco looked to later- rather than earlier ms in hunting comparisons for a detail seemed a little curious and is another point I’d have liked to have understood, but since he refuses any form of communication one cannot know the reason.
I chose the example from one of Marco’s posts chiefly because he is clearly an acute observer and a meticulous worker when dealing with medieval writings. My point was that if someone so careful and so observant in that work could suppose images might be provenanced and read by hunting nothing but ‘likeness’ within a pre-determined boundary, then it was reasonable to suppose that others with fewer skills, or less inclined to precision, would make the same mistakes and that if he could see nothing odd about that method, one could hardly expect others less able would do so.
It was no longer uncommon, by the last quarter of the fifteenth century, that herbals made for a Latin (i.e. western Christian) reader might have some type of ornamental or mnemonic device drawn below a plant; I suspect it may have given the work some additional cachet.
To that extent, one surely can agree that there is that single point in common between the three details Marco chose to juxtapose, implying some more direct connection existed between the three and perhaps that the content of the Latin work(s) might be imposed on the Voynich text, written and/or pictorial.
Apart from that very general ‘plant and root-device’ arrangement, though, the other two examples he cited have, quite literally, NO point in common with the Voynich drawing. Well, I suppose at a stretch one could count their all having a notional root formed boustrophedon.
That this fact, overlooked by Marco and by all who applauded his post, should need only a simple parsing of the image to prove it, shows just how rarely Voynicheros diverge from that ‘form a theory and match by likeness’ method.
So here, top down and point by point, is the analytical ‘parsing’ with comparison and contrast, both.
The Voynich drawing shows an upright plant; the two Latin images show their subject having a bushy or shrubby habit.
The Voynich image represents its flower/seed-head set within what could be read as surrounding leaves or as long, thin, sepals. In the Voynich plant-pictures the flower is normally regarded much as Theophrastus saw them, that is, as an early and ephemeral aspect of the plant’s formation of fruit and seed.
Marco’s first comparison shows the ‘flower’ as seed-head drawn in a way reminiscent of the bulrush, with neither sepals nor surrounding leaves. His second comparison, for which he gives a sixteenth-century date, has a very simple flower of four petals elevated well above any leaf, and again with no sepals shown. The latter comes from a manuscript whose date-range overall is given by the holding library as c 1475- c. 1525. In regard to its flower it is quite as different from the other Latin image as are both from the Voynich drawing.
Leaves included in the Voynich image are shown deeply divided – so deeply as to be reminiscent of the palm – and are shown springing along the whole length of one slender stem.
In Marco’s first comparison, the leaves are shown all rising directly from ground-level. each is given its own stem, in which one, central, vein is emphasised. In his second selected comparison, the leaves again rise directly from ground level but now have strong parallel veins as certain bulbs’ do. (I’m trying here to avoid technical terminology).
So far, when read simply as drawings, Marco’s compared images contain no detail ‘similar’ to that in either of the other two and neither of the other two is ‘similar’ to the detail from folio 43v.
That any reader, but especially a casual reader, should find their mind sliding over differences to focus on any hint of the ‘similar’ is perfectly normal.
The human brain is hard-wired to respond more positively and comfortably to similarity, because similarity suggests the familiar and, very often, what is ‘natural’ for the viewer. The ‘different’ evokes instantly in a majority of people a first inclination to avoid, re-define or dislike what is seen. Like all hard-wired responses, this one has, or anciently had, its practical value but learning to notice that it is happening and how consciously to oppose and balance that natural instinct, is part of the analyst’s training. In other contexts, we might describe that training as fostering a person’s intellectual curiosity.
Here too, the analyst must protest assertions of similarity, or similar intent, in common between the detail from folio 43v and those two images which Marco selected.
What we see in the two later drawings are conventions by which Latin art represented boneless things such as a leech or slug and also used to represent e.g. the innards of an animal or of a human being.
At a stretch, I suppose a case might be made that in the detail labeled ‘Macer Floridus’, the bump seen just below ground level was meant for an animal’s head, though that’s not a case I should care to make and doubt if, using that image alone, anyone could surely identify an intended genus, let alone species.
By contrast, I do think this detail in the Voynich drawing contains enough information to identify the type of creature meant, and thus to narrow the region in which the associated plant(s) were to be found. I did not analyse f.43v in detail and am adding the following analytical notes only today (Feb. 13th., 2022) without having run any of the usual cross-checks. My first thought, then, is that the maker likely intended to speak of one of the horned vipers and most likely Cerastes cerastes whose Latin nomenclature we owe to NIcholas Laurenti (1768). I won’t discuss all the details such as one’s eye’s being shown as if open but the other as both closed and crossed.
As so often in the Voynich manuscript, the drawing is not only highly detailed and extraordinarily fine and precise but very informative for anyone accustomed to be in the regions where the referenced plants occur.
‘fine and precise’ – The closeup I’ve shown (above) measures, in the original, about 25 mm x 25 mm (!!) and the head measures 5 mm x 5 mm (!!).
‘regions where the plants occur’ – According to the VAPA guide, the present=day distribution of Cerastes cerastes is North Africa, from Morocco and Mauritania to Egypt and northern Sudan, southern Israel, western Jordan. Cerastes gasperetti is found in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, western Iran and Cerastes vipera in the Sahara from Mauritania to Egypt, Israel. To make any determination about the Voynich drawing, however, one would have to find information proper to the period c.10tC AD-15thC AD (at least) for both the viper and any associated plant(s).
To find images of C.cerastes is easy enough. Those shown (below) are included only to show details not always evident – the lines of a long ‘nose’ and the way the back swells to develop the appearance of a central ridge when the snake is just about to strike. That slight movement in the sand might well be the only warning a traveller got. This viper is mentioned in Biblical literature (as ‘adder’) and is the one that proverbially ‘lies-in-wait’ in a person’s path. But as I say, this identification is a first thought, prior to any research being done.
This post isn’t about identifying the intended subject of that detail but the fact that Marco was, as it were, unable to ‘see’ these signs of difference, as were those Voynicheros who read his posts left no comments save applause, It shows quite clearly I think that the traditionalist’s expectation of ‘hunting matches’ as an appropriate method, and their equally traditionalist practice of ignoring or ‘blanking’ difference, can only be counterproductive in the longer term. Indeed it has been counterproductive ‘in the longer term’ since 1912.
Techniques and visual vocabulary:
There are items common to the graphic vocabulary of the western Christian (‘Latin’) world and to others, some being employed from their own traditions by the persons to whom we owe so many of the drawings now in Beinecke MS 408.
In the detail from folio 43v I might mention a ‘fringing’ which we see around the creature’s body.
A similar ‘fringing’ motif certainly occurs in medieval Latin art, where it is used to convey a variety of meaning – to represent spines on a plant, or for a horse’s mane, or to express the idea of radiance, as of fire, of a star or of a saintly halo and it can also be used as a form of modelling, including modelling the hollow fold of draped cloth or of terrain.
Clearly, I’m inclined to take as first option here that the fringing was meant to describe a hollow fold in the terrain, especially since the same usage is found in the Voynich map. How it might relate to a horned viper is easily understood, for any description of Cerastes will repeat:
The horned viper hunts by hiding under the sand (leaving only its horns, eyes and nose exposed) and striking at what comes close.
Pinney’s account is more detailed, and his book – though not without its flaws – remains a valuable ancillary reference. On this point, he writes:
.. older works have it classified as Cerastes hasselquistii, a desert species with a very toxic venom. It is relatively small .. and as pale and sandy as the desert it thrives in..They hide in the sand, in depressions such as those made by the hoofs of camels and horses, and if a man or some animal steps into such a hollow it strikes without provocation, and its venom can kill within half an hour, making it as deadly as a cobra
Roy Pinney, The Animals of the Bible: the natural history of all the animals mentioned in the Bible with a collection of photographs of living species taken in the Holy Land by the author. pp.174-5. First edition 1964.
Added image April 2nd., 2022:
As another possible insight into the intention of the first enuciator of that ‘root mnemonic’ one might consider another part of Pinney’s description.
‘They (the desert vipers) have developed a good method for fast movement in sand.. The slow forward progress of a viper is not actually a glide but, closely watched, will be seen to consist of a movement of the [flattened] ribs beneath the skin which might be compared to a centipede.
For those wanting the Biblical references, as cited by Pinney they are: Genesis 49:17, Job 20:16 and within works of Christian origin, Acts 28:3. As part of any formal analysis one would have to consult medieval and earlier commentaries on those verses and consider both verbal and pictorial images of the creature and so on. Time, Place and cultural context are what determine the intended meaning of a drawing. These are factors to be determined, and not presumed.
I hope readers will begin to appreciate that my opposition to the traditionalists’ “all-western-Christian-Europe” narrative is a consequence of my studying these drawings and not a product of any pre-determined theoretical or ideological stance.
Despite the reactions which dissenting views prompt among adherents of the ‘traditionalist’ position, one remains interested in this manuscript for its intrinsic interest and in my case, a feeling that it deserves better.
I’ve always liked Jim Reeds’ description of his early study group as ‘Friends of the Voynich manuscript’. It surely needs more.
Save where another author is credited, the material in the present post contains with some additional comment, original research published by the present author in 2017. The author’s rights are asserted.
And so, at last, having now addressed the endemic problem of theory-driven comparisons and the more general matter of different attitudes to forming images, we turn at last to the image on folio 5v*…
My thanks to Professor Bill Sherman, Director of the Warburg Institute and Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for permission to re-print his transcription of Panofsky’s answers.
In 2014, at the Folger Library, Professor Sherman curated an exhibition in which Beinecke MS 408 was included. Some of Professor Sherman’s publications are cited in:
G. Stuart Smith, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman (2017). see e.g. p.220.
Everyone’s thanks is due to Jim Reeds for first finding and transcribing the 1950s material and to Rich Santacoloma for doing the same for Anne Nill’s letter. (I should say now that I’m hunting another document whose content – if found – might make this whole post redundant. Fingers crossed!)
In what follows, my own commentary and its documentation is behind the black arrows. The post altogether is very long: more than 6,000 words if you expand it fully. But you can bypass the comments which make more than half of it, or come back some other time when you think they might be useful. The posts are published as notes and framework for the Bibliography.
What I have not fully described in this post is the early, keen interest felt by both Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon, Panofsky having been offered (in 1933) a complete photostat copy of the ms, taking it to Germany where he consulted gave it to Salomon. The latter showed keen interest in the puzzle and later came with Panofsky to talk with met Anne Nill at the Library of Congress (where Nill worked). I think it telling that Panofsky declines to speak of his own opinion in answering Friedman’s quiz.
Q – W. Friedman; A – E.Panofsky
Q 1: Have you examined the VMS itself.
A: I saw the Voynich manuscript in 1931. Panofsky doesn’t say that he was presented with a full photostat copy in 1933, lent it to colleagues (including Salomon) but had it returned to him at some time before 1953. I’ll come back to that in another post.
Note – Panofsky arrived in New York in September 1931, but Nill’s correspondence suggests he did not see the manuscript itself until early the next year. Twenty years later, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered. The correspondence is detailed in a coming post, ‘Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.’
Q 2: What is it written on; with what writing tool?
A: If you apply the words “parchment” and “vellum” in the strict sense (that “vellum” has to be made of the skin of calves* rather than other animals) I am not sure . However, the medium was certainly vellum in the more general sense and characterised by a fairly coarse-grained texture which in places caused individual strokes to appear like a series of dots when looked at with a magnifying glass. This, incidentally, may have caused the late Professor Newbold to believe that each of these dots stood for a letter and each letter for a whole word. The instrument used was doubtless a quill pen, the writing and the contours of the drawings being done in ink, the coloring, so far as I remember, in the kind of pigment usually described as “wash.”
Note: *the term ‘calfskin’ is sometimes seen used instead of vellum, but this can cause confusion given that ‘calfskin’ is often used, by itself, to mean calfskin leather. If using ‘vellum’ there is no need to add ‘calf-skin’ in front of it; vellum is made of calves’ skins by default. Uterine vellum is different again.
Q 3: What’s the date?
A: Were it not for the sunflower which, if correctly identified, would date the manuscript after 1492, I should have thought that it was executed a little earlier, say, about 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem[sic!] to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.
(At my second reading through these responses, I laughed out loud here… -D)
It is a delightful moment of Panofsky wit – but since none of the cryptanalysts ‘got’ it and d’Imperio takes this answer at face value, as did Tiltman in 1968 and as current Voynich writers still do, I’ll spell out Panofsky’s ‘dig’ briefly here, having already discussed the “sunflower in the Vms” issue in a separate Page.
You should know first that no-one took O’Neill’s ideas seriously at the time. So, for example, Nill, had said in writing to Salomon in the previous year (April 28th., 1953) telling him of it and saying, “We do not think it is a sunflower, and neither does Fr. Petersen.”
Here, in answer to question 3, Panofsky says he could go as far as ‘even the first years of the sixteenth century’. Normally that would mean not after 1510. (otherwise, you’d say ‘early decades…’
Now – see how his response to Question 8 says that the ‘sunflower’ is the only plant Panofsky ‘recognises’? How can that be, because what he has to recognise first is the style of drawing, and it’s not that of the European drawings of the sunflower, the first of which appears in Dodoens’ book of 1568 – as Panofsky surely knew. The illustration had even been reproduced as recently as 1951 in an American journal. (see below)
Is Panofsky confused?… I don’t think so… because here’s the thing. … Dodoens described the plant as ‘Peruvian Chrysanthemum’. And guess when Europeans first invaded Peru.?.. yep. 1510. … Talk about ‘fairly provincial….’ 🙂
So as I read it, Panofsky’s underlying message is: “If that’s a sunflower, I’m a Dutchman”.. or a Peruvian. [yes, I know Dodoens was actually a Fleming… and we shouldn’t take ‘Peruvian’ too literally. But that’s how it was described by Dodoens and for some time afterwards]
So Panofsky’s pulling Friedman’s leg, knowing perfectly well that Friedman won’t realise it. There’s no other way to reconcile the answers given to questions 3 and 8 save a tongue-in-cheek logic which implies that for a manuscript to be ‘no later than the first years of the sixteenth century’ AND to show the ‘Peruvian chrysanthemum’ the draughtsman would have to be in Peru.
… Dodoens wasn’t born until 1517.
Luckily, Panofsky was not to see Tucker and Janick later insisting (Springer, 2018) that O’Neill was right to imagine a sunflower in the Voynich manuscript, and further that Voynichese was – if not Peruvian – some lost dialect of Nahuatl. On the other hand, I think Magnus Pharao Hansen’s swift, cool and learned rebuttal of their ‘Nahuatl-dialect’ argument might have pleased the Professor well. ( And really – the Voynich-books coming out of Springer of late make one wonder what that press is coming to!)
Hugh O’Neill, ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS.’, Speculum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944).
Charles B. Heiser, Jr., ‘The Sunflower among the North American Indians’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 95, No. 4 (Aug. 17, 1951), pp. 432-448.
Charles B. Heiser, Jnr., ‘Origin and Development of the Cultivated Sunflower’, The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 17, No. 5 (May, 1955), pp. 161-167.
But (now on the alert) back to the responses…
Q 4: Why do you think so?
A: The above date is based on the character of the script, the style of drawing and on such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.
Panofsky indicates the criteria for dating content in a manuscript, but says nothing specific. Without further explanations given – or asked – the answer is one that would apply equally to whatever dates a person offered for any manuscript….We need to know how the ‘character of the script’ is perceived to accord with posited dates and, as importantly, with those of the place to which the item is being ascribed. The ‘style of drawing’, similarly… And just which dates (1470 or 1520 here, or fourteenth century as offered in 1931 1932) does he really think confirmed by the costume? He says the manuscript displays nothing of Italian Renaissance character.
The majority of more recent writers, however, who have shared with us their perception of the figures’ costumes argue that they are High [and thus Italian] Renaissance. To be clear, it is a position which the present writer does not share. However, most recent writers have also focused to a surprising degree, almost obsessive, on the calendar’s ‘Archer’ emblem where Panofsky draws attention instead to f.72r, Once again, it seems to me, Panofsky is making an oblique joke at Friedman’s expense though – I sense – also offering a genuine bit of information even if only for the specialist in philology and comparative palaeography.
Q 5: What’s it about?
After first turning the spotlight on that figure with a wand, Panofsky now says:
A: So far as can be made out before the manuscript has been decoded, its content would comprise: first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medical properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits” which were frequently believed to transmit the occult powers of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, magical purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways .
‘Before the manuscript has been decoded’ is a slightly mocking comment; Panofsky’s life was spent ‘decoding’ pictures, for many of which no accompanying text was present. The error of supposing imagery’s understanding depends on accompanying text is another of those nonsensical ideas endemic in Voynich studies, and will be asserted by persons who, not knowing a word of Latin, still hunt manuscripts for images which they expect to find legible… and, of course, do find legible in a way they never find imagery from the Vms legible.
The lesson which should be taken from this is that (a) when imagery derives from a familiar culture, it is legible and (b) when it is not legible it’s not because some accompanying text can’t be read.
The fact is that Friedman did presume all about the manuscript was dependent on the text’s translation, and in 2008, when the present writer first came to the study and began explaining the imagery in terms of cultural and stylistic expression, she was informed that all comments on the imagery were “personal and subjective” or “theoretical” and that nothing certain could be said until the written part of the text had been read.
As to Panofsky’s speaking of “general cosmological philosophy…” etc. – he has made a fairly obvious collation, heaping together bits from Newbold’s paper of 1921, and standard medieval ideas, but then ‘occulting’ them by means of what I’d describe as a purple-prose code. With delicious wit, he plays on ideas and terms proper to cryptography, while referencing medieval ideas and Newbold’s neo-Platonic speculations in a way you might well describe as contrapuntal.
Panofsky is verbose; he uses substitutions (e.g. “astral radiation” for al_Kindi’s radii stellarum; “spirits” for angels)… and so on. This is typical of his multi-faceted commentaries on art and his well-known humour.
So now, bearing in mind that the figure from f.72r is likely to be ‘read’ by any European as bearing a magic wand, and that the Americans called ‘Magic’ the system of coded messages generated by the Japanese ‘purple’ machine – and Friedman’s involvement in breaking that cipher, so Panofsky writes, verbose, with substitutions, Magic-Purple (prose).. about the rotas of heaven and earth… combining individual ‘elements’ in various ways.. In short, envisaging a cosmic, yet elegant, ‘enigma’. Quite beautiful!
It wasn’t entirely nice of Panofsky, I suppose, to make sport of Friedman in that way, but it is a just parallel for the ‘sport’ which Friedman and his wife had made of Newbold.
Nor had Friedman quite broken ‘Purple’ before It had broken him. His mind had given way in the first year of the war (1939) and while he was institutionalised, others in his team continued the work, with Lt.Francis A. Raven completing it.
about Raven: various sources refer to an NSA publication (issued online as pdf), some sources even including the link, but these do not seem to be current. In case you may fare better, here are the details:
Mowry, D. P., “Cryptologic Almanac 50th Anniversary Series – Francis A. Raven.” NSA/Center for Cryptologic History, released Jun 12, 2009, FOIA Case# 52567.
Friedman again broke down while trying to ‘break’ the Voynich text, and again had to leave the effort to others including Tiltman and Currier. In the end, the Voynich text defeated all who tried to ‘break it’, but those who – like Currier, Tiltman and others – were content to make careful observations of script and text-distributions etc. did make a lasting contribution.
To see how Panofsky’s response to Q.5 reprised Newbold’s ideas is easy enough; the resources are online.
Some may not be able to recognise the ‘purple prose’ encoding of ordinary medieval ideas, though, so here are a couple of passages showing how the virtu in things of earth, each conferred in its turn during the year, was believed transmitted from the Divine to earth by the intermediary stars, identified by some Christians – and not by others – with the angels. The first passage is chosen only because it’s the neatest, and despite Tester’s having neglected to name the fifteenth-century German cleric who preached this:
As God gave their power to stones and to herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that they have power over all things, except over one thing. They have power over trees and over vines, over leaves and grasses, over vegetables and herbs, over grains and all such things; over the birds in the air, over the animals in the forests, and over the fishes in the waters and over the worms in the earth: over all such things that are under heaven, over them our Lord gave power to the stars, except over one thing. … man’s free will: over that no man has any authority save thyself.
Berthold of Regensberg. Cited from Tester, A History of Western Astrology (1987) p.178. edit Feb, 26th., 2019 – apologies to Tester; it was I who had omitted the speaker’s name from my own notes.
and see e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q.73, Article 1, reply to Objection 3;
“…Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning…”
or even the 2nd C eastern Christian, Theophilus of Antioch, contemplating the year’s interlocked rotas:
Consider, O man, His works — the timely rotation of the seasons, and the changes of temperature; the regular march of the stars; the well-ordered course of days and nights, and months, and years; the various beauty of seeds, and plants, and fruits; and the various species of quadrupeds, and birds, and reptiles, and fishes, both of the rivers and of the sea; or consider the instinct implanted in these animals to beget and rear offspring, not for their own profit, but for the use of man; and the providence with which God provides…
and especially see:
Edward Grant, chapter ‘Celestial Motion and its Causes’ in Grant, E., Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687. (1996)
NB Alan B. Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars (OUP 1991)
Q 6: Are there any plain text books sort of [sic.] like the VMS?
A: Manuscripts in plain language remotely comparable to the Voynich manuscript are, unfortunately, of at least four kinds: first, herbals; second, cosmological and astrological treatises; third, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term; fourth, possibly treatises on alchemy. As for the first kind, you seem to have more knowledge than I can claim. As for the second, I should advise to consult Sir Charles Singer, From Magic to Science, London 1928, and various publications by the same author; furthermore, it may be useful to consult Richard Salomon, Opicinus de Canistris, London, 1936; and F. Boll and G. von Bezold, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung, Second Edition (F. Gundel, Ed.), Berlin and Leipzig, 1926. As for the third kind, ample material is found in two serial publications, both edited by the late Carl Sudoff: Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin and Studien zur Geschichte der Medizin; of alchemy I know very little and can only refer you to the Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie by E.O. von Lippmann, Berlin, 1919 ff., as well as a fairly recent book by the famous psychologist C.O. Jung.
Don’t overlook the first conditional: ‘remotely comparable’. Again, Panofsky merely behaves as a Professor might towards a first-year student whose ‘theories’ outrun his basic knowledge. Panofsky here declines to discuss a single image from the Vms, or a single manuscript as ‘comparison’ for it, nor for a single detail in any drawing. As before, the basic message is, ‘Go away and read’.
So in this answer – as I interpret it, anyway – Panofsky has no intention of doing more than pointing Friedman towards basic texts and to certain individuals whose positions were secure. Panofsky’s conferring a knighthood on Singer is either a mistake or, as I think, an oblique comment on Friedman’s social pretensions, acting (for that reason) as antidote to any assumption of Singer’s inferiority by reason of Jewish inheritance. This bias is clearly reflected, though probably unconsciously, in d’Imperio’s account of the cryptanalysts’ “plan of Attack” in her Table of Contents, which I’ll treat later. Interestingly, Panofsky does not refer to Dorothea Singer, who was a fine medieval scholar, and who was referenced by Lynn Thorndike in 1921. Charles Singer’s book of 1928, however, makes no mention of Thorndike even though the first and second volumes of Thorndike’s A History of Science and Experimental Magic had been published five years earlier, in 1923.
Charles Singer wrote studies in the history of medicine for the first part of his career and then turned to writing history – notably editing the encyclopaedic History of Technology. What Panofsky doesn’t say, and perhaps didn’t know, is that Singer also knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He had been born in London. His father Simeon Singer was a rabbi and scholar. Singer was another scholar who had left his home to come with his wife in the 1930s to take up a post in America (UCLA), remaining until 1942. In that year, despite the great risk it entailed, he and his wife re-crossed the Atlantic to return to England. (British naval losses; American naval losses).
Singer’s ideas about the Voynich manuscript were apparently developed and communicated only by post and after 1954. What d’Imperio never says is whether such opinions were merely answers given a quiz such as that presented to Panofsky. It is quite likely they were; by 1957 Singer was in England and Friedman shows no interest in reading or learning about medieval art and manuscripts; he likes to have others do that sort of work, and then extract from them answers to set questions of his own devising, in way suited to ‘number-crunching’ and puzzle solving. Friedman relied heavily on feeding quantifiable data-bites into a computer as a means to ‘break the text’. So I think it probable that, rather than buy and read the recommended books, Friedman simply contacted the authors expecting short, easy answers to his own short, ‘baby-steps’ questions.
In Singer’s own Evolution of Anatomy, he says he will omit …
“Paracelsus, and Helmont, and their followers, since the movement they represent did not become important until the second part of the seventeenth century”…
yet he opines to Friedman by letter (responding to a quiz?) that his vague ‘feeling’ is that the Voynich manuscript might be of a Paracelsan and occult-alchemical character, and composed by an ‘author’ living in sixteenth-century Prague. As always, there seems to have been no effort made by the theorist to check whether their ideas were compatible with reality: that is, in this case, to see whether the manuscript’s materials, style of construction or ‘hand’ suited such an idea. (A: they don’t).
None of those “feelings” which Singer says more than once are vague impressions finds support from the manuscript itself, but they have found determined support among a group of Voynicheros whose members are quite determined upon.
I find Singer’s testimony most interesting as one more of the many instances where a scholar of eminence and wide knowledge of European medieval works can suggest no manuscript at all as close comparison for Beinecke MS 408. This is a point so widely un-noticed, and still less rarely considered for its implications, that it deserves a post of its own. I’ll call it ‘Angels and Fools’.
Two volumes of essays, dedicated to Singer, had been published in the year before Friedman was introduced to Panofsky.
E. Ashworth Underwood (ed.), Science, Medicine, and History: Essays on. the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice. Written in honour of Charles Singer. Volumes I and Il. (1953).
Geoffrey Keynes’ review for the British Medical Journal neatly describes Singer’s character and publications. The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4873 (May 29, 1954), p. 1247.
Charles Singer, The Evolution of Anatomy: A Short History of Anatomical and Physiological Discovery to Harvey: Being the Substance of the Fitzpatrick Lectures Delivered at The Royal College of Physicians of London in the years 1923 and 1924.
Richard Georg [sometimes seen as George] Salomon (1894-1966) – converted to Christianity in 1902; escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. At the University of Berlin, Salomon had studied eastern European history under Theodor Schiemann (1847-1921), Byzantine history under Karl Krumbacher (1856-1909), the history of medieval law under Karl Zeurmer (1849-1914), and Latin paleography under Michael Tangl (1861-1921), under whom he completed his doctoral dissertation in February 1907: Studien zur normannisch-italischen Diplomatik. His name was among the six (with Panofsky’s) listed for expulsion from Hamburg University in 1934.
Panofsky’s pointing Friedman in the direction of these men, and texts, was not only wise, but kind. If all Friedman wanted was quiz-answers and easy ‘sound-bites’ the men might provide them; if he he was seriously interested in the manuscript as a late medieval product, studying the texts would begin his education.
d’Imperio is dismissive of Charles Singer, though including in her Bibliography five of Singer’s works (p.130) and two articles by Salomon. (p.129). I add a further note on Charles Singer’s theory further below.
Q 7: What plain text have you found in the VMS?
A: So far as I know, plain language writing is found: first on the pages showing the signs of the zodiac (folio 70 ff.) which seems to be provincial French; second, on folio 66; and third, on the last page, folio 116 verso. The entry on folio 66 reads, as discovered by Professor Salomon of Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, “der mus del,” which seems to be ancient German for “der Mussteil,” which is a legal term referring to household implements and stock of victuals which, after the death of a husband, cannot be withheld from his widow. The little figure and receptacles accompanying this entry may or may not refer to this idea. The entry on the last page reads: “So nim geismi[l]ch o.” This is again old German, the first word generally introducing a sentence following a conditional clause; the translation would be: “[If such and such a condition prevails], then take goat’s milk.” The last letter “o” is most probably to be completed into “oder,” which means “or.” The inference is that the sentence is unfinished and that some alternative substance was proposed in case goat’s milk should not be available. I may add that recipes of this kind are quite customary in mediaeval and Renaissance medicine.
Granted that Panofsky may, or may not, have agreed with Salomon’s reading of that marginalia – extraneous by definition to provenancing the manuscript’s original content as Panofsky realised (“The little figure …. may or may not refer to this idea”) – there has been a recurring discussion/dispute of Salomon’s reading, with Koen Gheuens’ summary of the ‘pro-‘ position neatly put and illustrated (together with his own thoughts) in his post of July 11th., 2017: Note also that Panofsky is as rigorous as ever in his principles – attributing Salomon’s insights to their author; his very meticulousness in such matters permits us now to credit Panofsky with first attributing to a ‘regional French’ dialect (Occitan?) the inscriptions over the central emblems in the Voynich calendar.
Occitan became a topic on the first mailing list during discussion of a book whose narrative attributed this manuscript to the Cathars of Langedoc. The question of Occitan then became one in its own right.
1997 Dennis Stallings published a list of bibliographic and other items relating to Occitan in the first mailing list (10 Feb 1997) including the important note (which was later independently stated by Artur Sixto in a comment to ciphermysteries, (February 17, 2011) that Occitan and Catalan – or Judeo-Catalan – are closely similar.
2009, Pelling credited Stolfi. In other posts, Pelling thought it most like the dialect of Toulouse – though he may have changed his views since then. Pelling first, and others including Don Hoffman later, noted a closely similar orthography on astrolabe inscriptions dating to c.1400. I’ll return to this matter when we come to the astronomical themes.
2011Artur Sixto’s comment was made (February 17, 2011) at ciphermysteries.com, saying he thought the forms closer to Judeo-Catalan, and commenting on use of that dialect among emigrees into north-western France. Because so many comments were made to the same post by Pelling I quote here the whole of Sixto’s comment:
Sixto wrote, “To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan).”
2015Commenting at Stephen Bax’s blog (May 18, 2015 – 11:14 pm) ‘Don of Tallahassee’ [Don Hoffman] noted similar forms for month-names used in Picardy, his examples taken from calendars in fifteenth-century Books of Hours.
Various others have reached similar opinions, often independently as a result of the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’ phenomenon.
On Salomon’s reading “der Mussteil,” see the lucid commentary by Koen Gheuens:
Salomon had consulted several secondary sources (which he cited in a letter of March 14th., 1936 to Panofsky or to Mrs.Voynich per Anne Nill), quoting in full an entry from:Der Sachsenspiegel (Landrecht) nach der ältesten Leipziger Handschrift herausgegeben von Prof. Dr. Julius Weiske. Neubearbeitet von weil. Professor Dr. Hildebrand. 8th.ed. Leipzig, O.R. Reisland, 1905 (Glossary p.28.)
Q 8: What plants, astronomical, etc, things have been recognised so far?
A: To the best of my knowledge, only the sunflower has been identified thus far.
To this I should have protested at first – had I been there – that Professor Panofsky must be joking, but then asked more of what he thought that might imply, if he really meant it.
Infuriatingly, if this is another reprise of things he had said at the meeting, it is another case of Friedman’s “blind spot” at work. An iconographic analyst of Panofsky’s calibre is (so to speak) the theoretical physicist of the art world; he has to know pretty much everything about everything expressed in visual form through the periods in which he specialises, and that includes the way plants and creatures are depicted in a given place at a given time AND what the depiction indicates about the signfiicance embedded in forms and details: that is, what non-superficial messages the image conveyed for persons of that time and environment. He would have to know the traditions of the bestiaries as well as the place of a creature in the schemes of Christian theology and moralia, as well as classical Greek and Roman lore. And so too for plants: is a rose intended as allusion to the Virgin Mary; to ‘Roman de la Rose’; to the physical rosa mundi; to an intended parallel between the pure soul of Mary as antidote to spiritual ills and the Rose as supposed protection against Plague … and so forth. This issue of intended significance is the one most noticeable by its absence in writings by persons who claim to ‘analyse’ imagery but who know nothing about it.
As regards plants, Panofsky’s well-known statement that “the rise of those particular branches of natural science which may be called observational or descriptive—zoology, botany, paleontology, several aspects of physics and, first and foremost, anatomy — was . . . directly predicated upon the rise of the representational techniques.” could not have been enunciated without a prior and thorough grounding in the way those fields of learning were illustrated before and during the period of the Renaissance.
Erwin Panofsky, Artist, Scientist, Genius: Notes on the “Renaissance-Dämmerung”, Lecture Given May 10, 1952 at the Fogg Museum Before the New England Conference on Renaissance-Studies. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953). also included in Wallace K. Ferguson (et.al.), Six Essays on the Renaissance (1962).
[pdf] Claudia Swan, ‘Illustrated Natural History’ in Susan Dackerman (ed.), Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge , exhibition catalogue, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp.186-191.
On flowers, their perception, depiction and attitudes to cultivation from ancient to modern times, with emphasis on Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods, see also
Jack Goody, The Culture of Flowers (CUP Archive, 1993).
reviewed by Chandra Mukerji in Theory and Society, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Aug., 1996), pp. 590-594
And quite apart from his professional studies, in which he discussed the symbolism intended by depiction of scarlet lilies, iris and honeysuckle, Panofsky’s correspondence shows a keen interest in the very practical aspect of botany: gardening.
Did he honestly mean that he could recognise not a single plant in the Vms? Not even in 9v, with its widely-accepted representation of one or more members of the viola-group?
Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: its origins and character (1953) Vol. 1 pp. 333 and note 6 to p.416.
‘Nothing but the sunflower’?? Hmmmm.
Q 9: Is it all in the same hand?
A: In my opinion the whole manuscript is by the same hand with the possible exception of the last page; but I am by no means sure of that.
(Another answer that says nothing.. -D)
Q 10: Why was it written’?
A: My idea always was that the manuscript was written by a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir.
I have no idea whether Panofsky really believed this. It echoes a view first put forward (whether Panofsky knew it or not) by Georg Baresch who said in his letter to Kircher, “… it is not inconceivable that some good man…”.etc. Panofsky does seem, overall, to have shared the usual assumption of contemporary and later Voynich writers in imagining the work to be all the product of a single ‘author-artist’. The solution to this problem may lie in that as-yet unseen report which Reeds mentioned in the 90s, and described as written by Panofsky to Voynich.
A: My guess is that the manuscript was produced in Germany, which is supported by the fact that the goat’s milk sentence is continuous with the text of at least the last page of the manuscript.
(I prefer to comment on this in the context of the first (1931 1932) evaluation. -D)
Q 12: What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
A: Quatsch. The Roger Bacon theory is in my opinion at variance with all the available facts and has been convincingly disproved by Mr. Manly. Further endorsement of Mr. Manly’s adverse criticism is found in a brief review of his article by the above-mentioned Professor Salomon which appeared in: Bibliothek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike, I, Leipzig and Berlin, 1934, page 96, No. 386.
I can reproduce Salomon’s review here, thanks to the patience of the Beinecke staff who found it among Anne Nill’s files (July 9th. 1936) as a clipping to which Salomon added that there was “no one else save you, Dr. Wilson and Dr. Petersen who could possibly be interested in it”. HIs view was that finding an exactly similar sequence of plants was the only practicable key, and perhaps this inspired Petersen’s concerted efforts to identify the plants. D)
Q 13: Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.
A: The dictionary of abbreviations is by Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario delle Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane; my edition is the second, published 1912, but there may be more recent ones. The book on forgery in art is by Hans Tietze and entitled Genuine and False; Copies, Imitations, Forgeries, New York, 1948. As far as the book by Mabillon is concerned, I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity. He did not write a book on “The History of Diplomatics” but his famous De re Diplomatica of 1681 laid the foundations of palaeography starting out with the investigation of documents which were supposed to be genuine and which he proved to be forgeries by studying the development of script. I should like to reiterate my opinion that the Voynich manuscript, whichever its place of origin, date and purpose, is certainly a perfectly authentic document.
I do not think anyone could mistake here the asperity with which Panofsky’s answers this question. His “I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity’ is a very formal and very cold English- and European form of insult: there is everywhere a point at which extreme politeness becomes an insult. In modern American the equivalent might be: ‘Are you a total fool?’ Panofsky’s then explaining, in words of one syllable, the importance of Mabillon’s book (of which no genuine ‘student’ of medieval manuscripts could have passed three decades in ignorance), tells us yet again that Panofsky has been driven to the point of outrage: this is a venting of professorial wrath. And, need I say, Friedman remained quite unable to weigh the relative merits of amateurs against specialists; Panofsky had said, categorically, that the manuscript was genuine, and yet d’Imperio – who hasn’t any relevant training or experience to judge the matter – decides (as we see later) to keep the option open. The reason has nothing to do with the manuscript itself, but with two fixed yet unproven assertions: that the text is in cipher and that it is entirely the product of Latin (western) Christian culture.
Q14: What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
A: The only scholar who still takes some interest in the Voynich manuscript is, so far as I know, Professor Salomon, already mentioned twice.
“already mentioned twice.” (and doubtless also in the ‘conference’ shortly before). Panofsky has now quite lost patience with Friedman and his ‘quiz’. That Panofsky omits mention of Charles (or of Dorothea) Singer here, again suggests that they had not yet, to his knowledge, been involved with the study. Charles Singer’s opinions, as quoted by d’Imperio, come from letters dating to 1957 or so.
Q15: What do you think of the artificial language theory?
A: I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your [sic!] “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century, whereas cipher scripts were developed and employed at a very much earlier date. As I mentioned in conversation, the Italian humanist, Leone Battista Alberti, welcomed the newly discovered “hieroglyphs” as a kind of writing that was independent of language differences and was therefore understandable to all initiated; but this would seem a rather different proposition because the hieroglyphs were not an artificial language developed, on systematic grounds, by a contemporary author but were reputed to be a sign language actually used by the Egyptians and therefore particularly attractive to the humanists who credited the Egyptians with a wisdom even more profound than that of the Greeks and Romans.
Panofsky’s comment about the dates being wrong for a deliberately-constructed artificial language (as such; not including newly-created scripts or alphabets to render a language) is absolutely right, and Friedman’s ignorance of even that – his own field – is once more evident. It is another item in proof that Panofsky was already better acquainted with the history than was Friedman. Panofsky also knows of O’Neill’s paper, published in 1944, though his knowledge of Alberti had long been part of his own scholarly repertoire. As, I expect, was his knowledge of medieval and Renaissance palaeography, essential to provenancing manuscripts and evinced by his familiarity with the books of which Friedman was still ignorant, though already had referred to them during their talk. His allusion to hieroglyphics is most likely to refer to the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo which has made such an impression on Dürer (among others). The edition by Boas includes some of Dürer’s drawings and an essay on the subject.
George Boas (ed. and trans.), The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo. (Boas’ translation was first published in 1950 but my copy is the 1993 edition which I think to be preferred. It includes a new foreword by Anthony T. Grafton)
SUMMATION: In my view, the assumptions made by Friedman, and the ‘theory’ on which his mind was already set – combined with his arrogance and ignorance of the basics needed to form a valid preliminary assessment of any medieval manuscript, but especially one whose content was obscure and imagery anomalous, effectively deterred Panofsky from bothering to provide Friedman with any informed comment on the manuscript’s imagery. It also – in my opinion- led him to avoid giving his personal assessment of the manuscript’s cultural origin, script or iconography. I read his responses chiefly as intended to ensure Friedman had no further excuse for contact.
Erwin Panofsky, Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968. Eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden, hrsg. von Dieter Wuttke (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag): Bd. I,Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1936 (2001); Bd. II,Korrespondenz 1936–1949 (2003). English reviews e.g. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol.11 (2004) Dec (Issue 2), pp. 280-292.
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Next post: Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1931 1932.