Light relief: inventing a German-Byzantine-Turkish-Mongol solution theory

Among the books you see listed in ‘Recommended Reading’ is one that tells of the life and adventures of Johann Schiltberger.

  • The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger, a Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427. Translated from the Heidelberg MS edited in 1859 by Professor Karl Friedrich Neumann, by Commander J. Buchan Telfer, R.N., F.S.A., F.R.G.S. With Notes by Professor P. Bruun of the Imperial University of South Russia, at Odessa, and a Preface, Introduction and Notes by the Translator and Editor. 1879 (1878). includes map.

Five or six years ago, having come to feel rather frustrated and irritated by seeing the results of days, or weeks (and in sense, I suppose, a lifetime’s) research being met by little except a combination of theft and insult, I toyed for a while with the idea of doing what Jacques Guy had done and creating a fake ‘theory’.   Guy’s motives were, I think, to bring home to his contemporaries that  deciding matters of history and codicology and even cryptography by no more than subjective judgements of ‘plausibility’ was a complete waste of time.   Well – perhaps that was his motive; one cannot know.   Still, it led to collateral damage which he, scarcely less than Stolfi, would regret.

The example was enough to deter me from pretending the  ‘Schiltberger theory’ was a genuine one.

Now, though, it might serve as something of an object lesson for newcomers, so let me tell you how that ‘theory’ was formed.

I simply used a large academic database, typed in a motley lot of search terms. Half were honest, reflecting my own findings and the rest came from theories then circulating.

Among the listed results  – articles and books containing all those terms  –  I decided on a book already on my shelves. The Haklyut edition of Schiltberger’s account of his slave-years and final escape.

Schiltberger’s story has been ‘gentrified’ by the wiki article’s author, but the facts are these.

Schiltberger’s family had put him into, or let him serve in, the army of a certain lord when he was fourteen.

He was captured and enslaved when barely sixteen (1396).

He lived as a slave for the next thirty-two years.

His work was to serve the succession of Turkish, then Mongol rulers as a courier ‘runner’.  That he was also permitted use of a horse is clear and, in fact, it was on horseback that he finally made his escape around 1426 or so.

He reached  Constantinople and was kindly received and treated by the Palaeologan emperor but, being still a slave, he was still the property of his owner and liable to be reclaimed if found, so he remained in hiding for a time, until finally assisted to return to his native home in Bavaria in 1427.

So there you are.  I’m sure you see that it would not difficult to work that up into all-encompassing Germanic-Mongol-Genoese-…and most other things… Voynich theory.

It would offer a plausible reason for the chap’s writing in a peculiar script, and speaking a form of language otherwise unattested – we’d posit that he’d spent so long with the Mongols that his speech and writing had been influenced by the ‘Tatar’ tongue.

Or it might be imagined that his role as a slave – runner or courier – had led him to know some clever non-:Latin cipher method… and though there’s no evidence one might argue that it wasn’t Rudolf but Sigismund (also king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor) who had given the poor ex-slave the sum of 600 ducats.

And that’s pretty much how Voynich theories are made.

Life being full of annoying ironies,  who knows… maybe I’m right without meaning to be, as perhaps Guy also was about the Asian character of the Voynichese. Stolfi’s subsequent study led him to suggest Jurchen.

He may be right, too.

To shift the focus of attention from a ‘central European Christian’ theory to one with regions east of the Bosporus at their heart  might be easier were the chief actor a ‘central European’ – and for the sake of the thing,  Schiltberger was a candidate as good as any other.

Postscript:  I see that now the same Hakluyt edition as that referenced at the head of the post is now at the internet archive. (here)