Glass and the pearl band

two prior:

FOR AN ARCHAEOLOGIST, or anyone specialising in a some specific field of technology or art, one’s first instinct when presented with a problematic artefact is to seek that point, within the axes of time and of geography, that it rightly belongs. In the present case, though, another preliminary step must intervene, because since 1912 Beineke MS 408 has been seen through an old and narrowly-defined Eurocentric lens.

That narrative is still substantially that which Wilfrid Voynich created, which was early adopted and maintained by William Romaine Newbold, and later fixed in the public imagination by its repetition in prestigious sources such as d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and the holding library’s catalogue entry.

Pressures of repetition, and earnest efforts to justify one or more aspects of Wilfrid’s narrative after the fact (while still altering it the better to support some variant) have fixed an impression among most people that among the few items we can say ‘we know’ is that the whole content of the manuscript should exhibit an exclusively western Latin Christian character.

Given the consistency with which those assumptions have been maintained despite (or perhaps because of) never being investigated with a critical eye, it is perfectly understandable that any suggestion about the content’s perhaps including unmediated foreign matter would cause disquiet.

So in this post, rather than risk being thought to have dispensed arbitrarily with a Eurocentric focus, I’ll do what I can to re-define what might be called the medieval ‘European horizon’.

In the map below, the darker coloured area had been, over the centuries, part of the Persian empire, then of Alexander’s empire, and next of the Median-Persian and Sasanian empire. It then became part of the Islamic empire until, during the thirteenth century AD, much of it fell to the Mongols, whose policy during the first wave of conquests was to wipe from the map any city offering active resistance.

Some sites named in that map (above) were household names in medieval Europe because they find mention in the Bible. Nineveh is mentioned repeatedly and not only in the Jewish religious books incorporated into the Christian bible but in the Christian testament itself (e.g. Luke 11:32).

Babylon was another proverbial name, so well known that when the western pope took his court to Avignon and it remained there almost seventy years (1309 to 1376), the period was commonly called its  ‘Babylonian captivity’.

Tabriz I’ve had reason to mention* as the city where Claudius’ Ptolemy’s astronomical co-ordinates were updated and that new data acquired  by the Byzantine scholar Gregory Chioniades between 1295-96. He called it the ‘Persian syntaxis’.

*see post of July 11th., 2021

Across the whole width of that territory and to as far as China, western Christian missionaries, diplomats and traders were already passing before the end of the thirteenth century.

By 1350 – about half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made – a census of Franciscan houses lists twenty-two on the route from Constantinople through the Black Sea and overland to as far as China, with four houses established by then in China itself – two in Peking at the terminus of the overland routes, and two in the southern, foreigners’ port known as ‘Zayton’ (Guangzhou) where the Genoese or Venetian Katarina Vilioni had died in 1342.

For a time, early in the seventh century, the Sasanian Empire had included the whole of present-day Iran and Iraq and also much of the eastern Mediterranean (including Anatolia and Egypt.

The Byzantines had reason to remember the Sassanians, whose army had alone succeeded in resisting Rome, and it was never forgotten that in c.260AD King Shapur had captured the Roman Emperor Valerian and him kept in captivity for the rest of his life.

(Those familiar with the Voynich manuscript may recognise in Shapur’s stepped-turreted crown a form similar to that given a female figure appearing twice in the Voynich calendar. In both cases (see diagrams for July and August); the figure holds a large 9-pointed ‘aster’ and is set on the innermost tier at 90 degrees right from the vertical. The inset in the picture (below) shows the example from July, where the crown and certain other details are evidently late additions to the original.

In 532 AD and following several major losses to the Persians, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I agreed to pay 440,000 gold pieces in return for an ‘eternal peace’.

Justinian evidently treated this final defeat as a triumph of diplomacy, and it is memorialised in a mosaic made for the basilica S.Vitali in Ravenna, the work begun in 526 and completed in 547.

Sassanian seal-ring set with a carnelian ‘sardion’.

The mosaic shows Justinian wearing as his ‘badge of honour’ a gem then called a ‘Sardion’ after the city of Sardis, stones of this type often used as a seal-stone by the Sasanians (see example at right).

Worn as Justinian’s badge of honour, the stone is shown surrounded by ‘ring of dots’ as pearls – another typically Sasanian-Persian motif in textiles, ceramics and glass but one equally characteristic of Byzantine art.

The bowl which Justinian carries is also patterned in Sasanian style, though the glass appears richly gilded.

(detail) Justinian I. 6thC mosaic, Ravenna. Basilica San Vitale.

Chan mentions that within each of the hexagons that form that bowl’s basic honeycomb pattern is set another and smaller one. In the upper left of the photograph (above) one of them can be seen fairly clearly – it appears as a ‘dot’.

However, the Sasanian emperor almost immediately broke that first ‘eternal peace’ and another mosaic portrait of Justinian, made for Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, shows Justinian now without his ‘sard’ and wearing a different expression.

This mosaic is believed made in 561 AD or shortly before, when work on Sant’Apollinare Nuovo was completed. A second ‘eternal peace’ would finally be achieved in 562, after six hundred years’ war between the Romans and Sasanian Persia.

The point I want to make is that even if we ignore the probable significance for the Sasanians of that ‘circle of pearls/dots’ it was an established motif in Byzantine art, and for those who made glass, and fabric, and mosaics.

Tesserae of both stone and glass were employed for mosaics, and such motifs as the ‘pearl band’ remained as a constantly present model for the ‘finishing’ or ‘crowning’ touch, even when the subject was not a member of the Byzantine court.

Ravenna is a little more than a hundred miles down the Adriatic coast from Venice, and its magnificent basilicas remained a model of what could be achieved, if only one had the technical means and skilled artisans. Thus, we know (although not every Venetian site will say so) that when Venice decided to remodel the Basilica of S.Marco during the thirteenth century, it imported both eastern materials, and workers. A nicely condensed account of this basilica’s complicated history is offered by the author of a wiki article, who writes:

The earliest surviving [mosaic] work, in the main porch, perhaps dates to as early as 1070, and was probably by a workshop that had left Constantinople in the mid-11th century and worked at Torcello Cathedral.* They are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style” but in succeeding phases of work Byzantine influence … was reduced by stages, disappearing altogether by about the 1130s, after which the style was Italian in essentials, reflecting “a change from a colonial to a local art”. The main period of decoration was the 12th century, a period of deteriorating relations between Venice and Byzantium, but very little is known about the process .. The main work on the interior mosaics was apparently complete by the 1270s, with work on the atrium continuing into the 1290s.

*we have already noted, in the post previous to this, that at Torcello  the glass objects were made ” using cullet (glass refuse) or glass cakes imported from the eastern Mediterranean’.

The basic drawings may have been ‘local art’ but the artisans were apparently not from any local tradition of mosaic-making, for..

After [the 1279s-90s]the St Marks workshop seems to have been disbanded, so that when a fire in 1419 caused serious damage, the only Venetian capable of the work had just died and the Signoria of Florence had to be asked for help; they sent Paolo Uccello.

San Marco never made the transition to fresco wall paintings … probably partly due to Venetian conservatism and also to a wish to support the local Murano glass industry, which supplied the tesserae. The point is that from 1290 – 1419 (at least) no mosaics were added.

Who then is the ‘old master’ among the 13thC images of Venetian trades? His ‘Sasanian’ cap is enough to point us in the right direction, even without the visual pun of his ‘Mosaic’ beard.

It cannot be Master Aldrevandin, but is perhaps his teacher.

Work on S. Marco’s mosaics finished officially in the 1290s – during which time glassmakers were first confined to Muran and then prohibited from leaving the city. Master Aldrevandin, as we know, then made beakers which introduced the the long-traditional ‘pearl band’ of Sasanian and Byzantine work into the traditions of Muran. They served initially in western Europe as his own hallmark and then became a standard motif on Murano glass. Sasanian ‘crystal’ glass had been known to as far as China by the 3rdC AD.

Sasanian clear glass beaker
coins Sasanian headwear
photos: (above) two versions of Sasanian headwear.

Ge Hong (283-343), a well-known .. Daoist philosopher with an expertise in alchemy left an important information in his work ‘Baopuzi’ that ‘the crystal bowls made in foreign countries, are in fact prepared by compounding five sorts of (mineral) ashes. Today this method is being commonly practiced in Jiao and Guang (that is, Annan and Guangdong). Now if one tells this to ordinary people, they will certainly not believe it, saying that crystal is a natural product belonging to the class of rock crystal.’

  • Mei-Ling Chen, ‘The Importation of Byzantine and Sasanian Glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries,” in Harris, Incipient Globalization?, 47-52 [pdf].

One of the curious details relayed to Nick Pelling by the curators of the Murano glass museum was the secret by which Angelo Barovier produced his hard, clear glass in 1450, was allegedly  “a special flux, made of a sort of alum obtained from eastern plants.” (Curse p.). 

Plant-ash sodas are not a form of alum, but that type of plant-ash alkali was regularly preferred in Muran, even when other Italian glassmakers used natron, and was known popularly as alluma catana, literally ‘basin alum’.  Of itself, however, it couldn’t harden or clarify glass and in theory the ashes from sola kali would not produce a different result, whether burned in Spain, in ‘the east’ or in Italy. The important question, of course, is “how could Barovier know?” If the seller told him the virtues of a new type of plant-ash, it was not Barovier’s invention. If not, where and how would a man restricted to his island and prohibited from discussing his craft, even think to look for and then to find and import the right sort of ‘plant-ash’? Is it more likely that some Venetian trader brought back both the material and an understanding of those ‘five mineral ashes’?

I suspect the ‘eastern plant ash’ was another of those memories passed down in Murano from the time of Master Aldrevandin, but Barovier’s method for clarifying and hardening glass is still not easy to discover.  The answer may lie in one of the following references. I’ve been unable to sight either during the past few months.

  • Cesare Moretti and Tullio Toninato (eds.) and David C. Watts and Cesare Moretti (ed. and trans.),Glass Recipes of the Renaissance: Transcription of an Anonymous Venetian Manuscript. (2011).
  • Antonio Neri, L’Arte vetraria = The Art of Glass, translated and annotated by Paul Engle, 3 vols., (2003–2007).

for those references, I am indebted to the author of

Ravenna mosaic three wise men and artefacts. Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

(above) The three wise men from the east. Artefacts display characteristically Sasanian techniques in metalwork (and glass?). detail of a mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.

__________________

POSTSCRIPT – regarding the figure who holds a nine-point ‘aster’ in the Voynich calendar’s months of July and August:

Persia’s star was ever Perseus ‘the destroyer’ envisaged as a horse mounted by a skeleton or phantom rider. The equation was known to Herodotus in the 5thC BC and still in the fifteenth century AD – at least to some. Herodotus therefore has Perseus as the progenitor of the Persian people. Ibn Majid, writing in the fifteenth century, names this horse (as the constellation was earlier envisaged) ‘Al Kumait’ – the unbridled. The image on the card below, showing the rider ‘backward-turned’ is the older and more authentic form.  See also Alamy image (WP338D) which I cannot include here.

The pictures in this set of 17 cards show a markedly different origin and intellectual level from all others known in Europe. Unlike most who comment on such game-cards, I’m of the opinion that these represent an original type and I’m quite prepared to believe such cards as these might have served as tutorial aids in fourteenth century France.

Perseus and Perseids

 

 

 

 

Sasanian head band

Sasanian hunt backward turning

If that ‘aster’-holding figure is meant for the Persians’ star, it is most likely to refer to Algol, properly named Al-ghul in the Arabic, though I don’t know the old Persian term for it.  The star was envisaged as a blaze, or trophy (see above, and below) on the horse’s hip, though at other times represented as a trophy-head -or even as a wine or water-skin.  (see further below).

Sasanian hunt with trophy.

…as a wine-skin or water-skin. 

Sasanian hunt as stellar triumph oveer zodiac

Due to precession, Perseus’ ‘rain of arrows’ (the Perseid meteor showers) now  peaks in August.  For more on this see: here. The floating scarves parallel the wisps of the Milky Way.

On retention of pre-Islamic elements in later Iranian art, including the ‘flying gallop’ and the scarves, see ‘ART IN IRAN xii. Iranian pre-Islamic Elements in Islamic Art’, Encyclopaedia Iranica. (online).

image courtesy Encyclopaedia Iranica.

In the Greek astronomy, Perseus is a human figure and the ‘ghul’ the trophy as Medusa’s head.

PPS – apologies to readers for the numerous ‘updates’ – mainly typos, grammatical errors and other small annoyances. Just had my second inoculation and the brain isn’t working properly.

Potions and lotions – the ‘pharmaceutical’ section. Perfect antiquity and a Voynich legend.

Two posts previous:

Header image – from the Iliad Ambrosiana.

Medieval Europe did not share the modern preference for new ideas and the latest information, but believed that the more ancient a text was, the more trustworthy and less degraded by the vicissitudes of time and inaccurate repetition.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise if some images in Beinecke MS 408 reveal evidence of Hellenistic* or Roman character.

*The Hellenistic period in the Mediterranean is usually said to begin with Alexander and end with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. In fact, in the eastern region of Alexander’s empire and colonies, Hellenistic culture survived for almost three centuries more and the influence of Greek and Roman art persists still longer in some regions east of the Bosporus.

We are used to thinking of human history in terms of an ongoing ascent, but the medieval west saw it rather as a process of descent from an imagined pristine origin.

To some extent the recovered classical and ancient texts appeared to support that view.

There was no doubt that Virgil and Cato spoke better Latin; that Ptolemy had access to better information about astronomy and geography, than did fifteenth-century Latins. I do not think they imagined what they were doing as a ‘renaissance’ so much as a re-discovery and recovery of what had been a greater glory.

That is why European elites of the fifteenth century devoted so much time, effort and money to having agents find and bring copies of ancient and classical works to Europe and then have them copied and, where necessary, translated.

Such things cost money, and it is no co-incidence that the Church, the merchant classes, and the artisans whom they employed were what drove the first, Italian, phase of that great recovery we call the Renaissance. Texts which they wanted and copied include everything from legal orations to epic poetry, botany, history, geography and other matters of the natural world.

Nor were even the most ancient of those works necessarily ‘dead texts’.

The most strongly Greek-speaking areas of the Byzantine empire (or what was left of it by then), long used the poems of Homer as the basis of education, in much the way the book of Psalms was used in the west. By the fifteenth century, the text of Psalms was as much as three thousand years old; that of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey about 2,200 years old. Neither was a ‘dead text’ but very much alive.

In those two cases – that is of the Psalms and of Homer – the custom was to have students first commit the verses to memory, each verse then used as both a springboard for, and a memory-cue to, more developed commentary spoken by the teacher.

It was an entirely practical system in a time when books were rare and most education conducted by words, word-pictures or actual figures from the natural world or public imagery (vide depiction of the constellation-emblems and their labours of the months in churches and on the exterior of a cathedral in the west).

To take one example, to show how Homer’s work could remain relevant, here’s one passage. You can see that the passage naturally opens a path to commentary about astronomy and geography, but all being framed by an adventure-story in beautifully turned Greek and sure to grip the interest of any young lad.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. …. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.(Bk.V ll.269-280)

Any well-educated person in the Byzantine sphere could have recited this by heart, and over the centuries, a myriad of metaphors and proverbs in daily life referred back to Homer much as in western Christendom they often derive from biblical ideas and tropes. 

The first Latin translation of Homer – both his Iliad and his Odyssey – was produced by the Calabrian scholar, Leontius_Pilatus, who also translated Euripides (c. 480 – c. 406 BC) and  Aristotle (384-322 BC).  

Thus, to find matter in a manuscript made in the early fifteenth century, and probably in Italy or the western Mediterranean, in which there are images reflective of the pre-Christian world, should not greatly surprise us.

Another ancient author whose writings were found, brought, translated and then eagerly copied was Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287 BC) among whose many subjects were plants, meteorology and winds.

Because his work on Plants appears not been noticed by Voynich writers (the present author having met what might be described as ‘expressions of surprise’ on introducing his name some years ago), I’ll add a longer than usual list of first-stage references further below.

The century-long focus on the Dioscoridan tradition and its herbals, in Voynich studies, has not led to any clear understanding either of the plant-pictures or of the ‘leaf and root’ folios, which latter section is now habitually described as forming a “pharmaceutical” section – an idea based on nothing but speculation and never since proven true, but which has hardened over time to become yet another of those Voynich doctrines well deserving revisionists’ attention.

A copy of Theophrastus’  ‘Historia Plantarum’ now in the Vatican library is dated to the tenth or eleventh century. It is in Greek. (Vatican City, Urbinas graecus 61; eleventh (?) century).  Some of Theophrastus’ work was preserved, with his name, in Pliny, and in the works of Jerome (see here) but otherwise his works were scarcely known to the west until a Latin translation was made of what is more properly known as the Historia Plantis, that translation made by Theodore of Gaza at the request of Pope Nicholas V.  The Theodore of Gazatranslation is said to have been completed in 1454. It would be published in Treviso, in 1483. During the three decades which intervened, the text both in Latin translation and in the Greek were evidently being passed around in manuscript, and copied eagerly.  In a sense it was considered a replacement for the better known text of Dioscorides, but even today the problems of matching plants to the terms used by Theophrastus – or indeed by Dioscorides – is no trivial problem.  From whence Theodore had his copy we do not know, but in speaking of Leontis Pilatus, Holton placed  emphasis on the fact that the fourteenth-century scholar had “spent several years in Crete” around 1350 and from Byzantine sources too, we get a glimpse of a ‘Recovery’ in Crete before that in Italy.

  • Holton David  Literature and society in Renaissance Crete. p. 3. (1991).

  • Benedict Einarson, ‘The Manuscripts of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum’, Classical Philology, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 67-76.

Perhaps it was during the three decades between its translation into Latin and its publication in print, that the copy of Theophrastus’ Historia Plantarum was made, in Greek, which is now included in a compilation of copies from Greek texts dating from the fifteenth century (Vat.gr.1759). The other texts  bound with it offer a window into contemporary interests, and its being devoid of  separation between secular and the religious interest.  The copied authorities relate to astronomy and to theology, to pre-Christian philosophy, astrology and botany.

Some helpful references.

  • Alain Touwaide, ‘Botany’ in A. Classen (ed.), Handbook of Medieval Studies. The section can be downloaded through academia.edu.
  • Moshe Negbi, ‘Male and Female in Theophrastus’s Botanical Works’, Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 317-332.
  • John Scarborough, ‘Theophrastus on Herbals and Herbal Remedies’, Journal of the History of Biology,  Vol. 11, No. 2, (Autumn, 1978) pp. 353-385. JSTOR
  • ___________________, ‘Drugs and Drug Lore in the time of Theophastus: folklore, magic, botany, philosophy and the rootcutters’, Acta Classica, Vol. 49 (2006), pp. 1-29. 
  • Charles B. Schmitt, ‘Theophrastus in the Middle Ages’, Viator, II, 1971, pp. 257-70.
  • R. W. Sharples, ‘Some Medieval and Renaissance Citations of Theophrastus’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 47 (1984), pp. 186-190. Very technical; interesting chiefly for its connecting Theophrastus to passages in the work of Albertus of Lauingen [called ‘magnus’], and for mention of a known Syriac copy of Theophrastus’ meteorological works (n.35).
  • Peter Lautner, ‘Theophrastus in Bessarion’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 115 (1995), pp. 155-160.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden, Lenhardt Library ‘Theophrastus and the beginnings of modern botany in the Renaissance’, (December 2012)
  • Michael L. Satlow, ‘Theophrastus’s Jewish Philosophers’, Journal of jewish studies, vol. lix, no. 1, spring 2008. (at academia.edu)
  • Dr. Efraim Lev, ‘Drugs held and sold by pharmacists of the Jewish community of medieval (11th -14th centuries) Cairo according to lists of materia medica found at the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection, Cambridge’.  A first draft has been posted at academia.edu, with the author’s caution that it is only a draft that has been accepted for publication.

Theophrastus’ work on winds begins, 

“We have earlier considered [in his ‘Meteorologica’] the nature of winds: of what they consist, in what way they come to be, and by what they are caused. We must now try to explain that each wind is systematically accompanied by effects and in general by phenomena whereby the winds are differentiated from each other” – Theophrastus, de Ventis.

For more on this see last see,

  • V. Coûtant and V. Eichenlaub, ‘the De Ventis of Theophrastus: its contributions to the theory of winds’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 55, No. 12. (December 1974), pp. 1454-1462.

For any reader who feels an especially strong interest in Theophrastus, most of the information in the references listed above are embraced by Brill’s series of authoritative editions and commentaries.

Beyond the learned halls.

In the elite and carefully-monitored, interconnected circle of western literati during the early Renaissance, ancient and classical texts were studied, but beyond that environment, the erudite selection of worthy material and decisions about translation no longer apply.

What the new and slowly emerging commercial class wanted was practical information that was both rare enough and ‘new’ enough to be of financial advantage over others enagaged in similar business.

Some of the ‘new’ techniques that Europe habitually ascribes to some particular Latin’s invention (as gunpower was earlier claimed to be Roger Bacon’s “invention”), were not.

In the next post, I’ll consider one of those legends – one maintained to this present day and which attributes to a Venetian named Angelo Barovier the invention of clear glass – quite two decades centuries after it appears in the eastern Mediterranean, and a couple of decades at least after the Voynich manuscript’s vellum has been dated.

There was advantage to be gained by pretending some technical secret an invention rather than an importation – a rival was deterred from attempting to find another source for that information. But avoiding acknowledgement of any debt by Europe in general, to a foreign source, to any ‘foreigners’ or even to European Jews has been a long-standing and pervasive problem in the way Europe has written its history.

Scholars had begun to open their eyes by the 1960s but it is evident they had no immediate influence in general attitudes. Apparently none at all on d’Imperio, even as late as 1978 when her own initial impression that the Voynich images suggested ‘foreignness’ was one she quickly suppressed – as we’ve seen.

In was in 1960 that Lynn White had written:

IN I499 when Polydore Vergil published the first history of technology that amplified the Greco-Roman tradition, it did not occur to him that, save for silk and cotton, Europe might owe anything in these matters to Central, Southern, and Eastern Asia: his horizon in that direction was the “Magi, qui Persica lingua Sapientes appellantur.” It was not until the seventeenth century that Jesuit missionaries to the Orient persuaded Europeans to believe that several of the fundamental inventions which are alleged to have made the modern world modern were of Chinese origin: notably gunpowder,* the compass, paper, and printing. The process of scholarly erosion then began, and our view today is moderately changed. What has emerged is a sense of the remarkable complexity of the interplay between the Occident and East Asia from Roman and Han times onward. This involved a two-way traffic, in many items, along many routes, and of varying density in different periods…

*as we’ve seen, this particular Eurocentric myth was maintained by the general population in Europe and in America well into the twentieth century.  

  • Lynn White, Jr., ‘Tibet, India, and Malaya as Sources of Western Medieval Technology’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Apr., 1960), pp. 515-526.

  • Lynn White Jnr., ‘Natural Science and Naturalistic Art in the Middle Ages’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Apr., 1947), pp. 421-435.

YangzhouKatarinaVilioniTomb1342

A three-hundred year gap between knowledge of some debt owed by European learning to ‘foreigners’ and the general recognition of that fact within the west, is the sort of thing which causes a scholar to feel irritation and frustration.  We’ve seen this sort of irritation in Lynn Thorndike’s letter to Scientific American in 1921 and here again – fourteen years later than the earlier paper – Lynn White now writes with an understandable exasperation: 

Except for the folklorists, medievalists are not habituated to thinking about the borrowing of cultural items from alien peoples in distant parts, and seem curiously resistant to the idea. When one talks about diffusion, for example of the spinning wheel or of the magnetic compass .. some skeptic is sure to assert his faith that our crafty medieval ancestors were as capable of inventing such devices for themselves…. One can only reply that each case must be examined in the context of all that we know: there are indeed a few clear instances of separate invention.  When, however, we find Indian buffaloes in medieval Europe, we may be confident that the buffalo was not invented twice.

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

Indic buffalo Pisanello from Lynn White 'Indic Elements..'Two years after that paper was written, Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma was in process. 

Published in 1978 it never for a moment looks beyond medieval European culture, assumes that Jews had literature exclusively religious or ‘superstitious’, presumes that any version of such material can be relevant only in forms mediated by western Christian ‘translation’ and in one place clearly expresses her personal aversion, in general, to the ‘foreign’.  

What Lynn White knew to be true of western medievalists half a century ago is less true of those scholars now, but the same attitudes had been pervasive in the general culture of Europe and America, thus influencing the first generations of Voynich writers and thanks not least to d’Imperio’s record of the Friedmans’ efforts, informs the lineage of current-day Voynich traditionalists.

That the study remains in that state is chiefly due to the determined and defensive-aggressive posture of some core-traditionalists and others adhering to the same ‘history’ for the manuscript.

How such attitudes and responses deter researchers and hinder any new approaches can be attested by many, among whom one might again mention Jorge Stolfi who simply reported the results of his computer-analysis of the written text.  Whether his results were right or wrong is yet to be known; but it was a fair contribution to the study and one whose rejection was achieved by means other than civil scholarly discourse.

 The faithfulness with which certain core traditionalist adhere to the Wilfrid-Friedman-d’Imperio line is the main reason that ‘Voynich studies’ today conveys something faintly musty and quaint as exercises in historiography.  A constant emphasis on nationalism is so typically nineteenth-century, and today recognised as being inappropriate for the medieval world; the notion that any image found in a region must in some (ill-defined) way the unique expression of a local ‘cultural character’ –  within medieval Europe – is embarrassing when we know that a manuscript may be found, by research, to have been made  not in Spain but in Sicily, or not England but in France with the only discernible difference the saint’s name is listed in a calendar. 

The same excuses which White assigned to ‘some skeptic’ have really been offered by Voynich theorists when informed that some aspect of the manuscript’s codicology, or imagery, presents irrefutable opposition to their theory.  ‘Our chaps could have done that too’ is not an uncommon response and for some ultra-traditionalists ‘could have done’ means ‘certainly did – pure Wilfrid style.

And so to the next ‘Voynich doctrine’, by which folios 99r-102v are deemed the ‘pharmaceutical section’.

Voynich bit leaf-and-root fols

Folios 99r-102v. ‘Pharma’

About this section, again, close inspection shows its ‘Voynich doctrine’ to be an elaboration without foundation. The ‘pharmacy’ idea was built on nothing but air – or at least, airy notions.

In the next post, its roots are traced. The following post starts asking specific questions.

Next post – the legend.