I HAD MEANT to revisit artefacts as represented in drawings from the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, but this is a convenient place to add another horizon-broadening topic/possibility/avenue for enquiry – the matter of commerce.
I think it significant that, though so much of the manuscript is about plants, there’s no obvious interest in the animal and/or mineral products so important for Europe’s medicines and its late-Renaissance alchemy.
Elsewhere, and especially in ‘eastern parts’ (to quote Baresch), we do find a greater reliance on purely plant-based products, including medicines and even in old Cairo – once a major hub of the east-west trade – a list of the top ten medicinal substances used by the Jewish population is plant-based, and are among goods recorded used in western Europe. A list of the ten is included (as Table 1) in a valuable paper:
Zohar Amar and Efraim Lev, ‘The Significance of the Genizah’s Medical Documents for the Study of Medieval Mediterranean Trade’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. 50, No. 4 (2007), pp. 524-541.
NOTE – for any long-term researchers who remember my plant-identifications, I should add that I had not read Lev’s article before explaining one drawing as representing the ‘myrobalans’ group, or accepting Dana Scott’s identification of the rose in another folio. Scott did not publish his work independently online, and his contributions are now available at their source only to members of Rich Santacoloma’s mailing list. I have Rich’s word that he intends to do as Jim Reeds did before him and offer the past conversations as a searchable database – when time and other pressures might permit him.
In recent years much scholarly attention has been turned to the role of trade and commerce in widening medieval Europe’s horizons. In 2014 this growing interest prompted the University of Illinois to launch a new journal, The Medieval Globe, to “bring into view phenomena that have been rendered practically or conceptually invisible by anachronistic boundaries, categories, and expectations”.
As another writer puts it,
In the years since 2001, there has been a flood of studies seeking to combat .. parochialism and highlight the cultural fluidity and porous boundaries that existed between the various ethnic and religious sects that populated the medieval Mediterranean. [Scholars] have convincingly shown the Mediterranean as a fragmented terrain imbued with strands of cultural hybridity.
Bruce P. Flood, Jr., ‘Sources and Problems in the History of Drug Commerce in Late Medieval Europe, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1975), pp. 101-105.
Other paragraphs from that paper could almost serve as a blueprint for revisiting Newbold’s ‘pharma’ theory. Flood writes,
One important source for information on drug commerce in the late Middle Ages are the drug inventories and price lists (usually compiled for the purposes of taxation and the settling of estates) of several of the Italian and German cities. Examination of some of the information which these documents yield raises a number of questions for future research in the history of drug commerce, as well as indicating some of the problems encountered in dealing with these sources…
One major problem encountered immediately is that since most of the imported items also had other uses, such as spices for culinary purposes, various gums, oils and resinous substances for religious and cosmetic needs, it is impossible to separate drugs as such from the spice and luxury trade. Most of the spices came from Asia and India by sea or overland caravan routes from the Near East. Most gums and resinous products came from the coasts of East Africa, and there was also some trade from North Africa and Spain.
The coastal route of East Africa was that sailed in the fourteenth century by Ibn Battuta – as passenger – and regularly in the fifteenth century by Ibn Majid as master pilot. It is seen on a map in the previous post.
Leather-tanning is among the less-often considered uses for plants. A useful reference is here.
For the ‘leaf-and-root’ section, one question which might reward investigation is that of illustrated commercial lists – inventories, invoices, bills of lading (what Florentines called libri di mandate), taxation records and catalogues of various types.
Among these, within Europe, its herbals represented a catalogue of (usually) local plants, and the common Dioscordian-style herbals were sometimes on display as a medicine-maker’s ‘catalogue’ – the Anicia Juliana codex was probably used in that way for a time, if it is the volume reported as on display in the ‘Moor’s Head’ in Venice.
Correction (Sept.5th., 2021). There was an apothecary shop in Venice known as the ‘Moor’s Head’, but according the Thorndike, the incident was described as follows
“There, in the street of the spice-dealers, in a shop having as its sign the head of an Ethiopian, he had consulted an herbal in which the plants were represented so carefully and artfully that you would have thought they grew on its pages.”
Lynn Thorndike, History of Magic & Experimental Science, Vol.IV (p.599)about Pandolphus Collenucius of Pesaro’s time in Venice.
But so few of the Voynich images come from that western herbal tradition, as a century of failed efforts to ‘match’ them has proven – and notwithstanding the valiant effort made in the essay included in the Yale facsimile edition, which presents as a history of western herbals, adorned with clips from the Voynich manuscript – that the last word remains that pronounced by John Tiltman in 1968.
I’ve included two detailed analytical discussions of such ‘matches’. One treats O’Neill’s “sunflower” (see page in top bar) and the other treats a supposed ‘oak-and-ivy’ identification – see post ‘Retrospective justifications‘.
Proof that some commercial documents did include illustrations is offered by the example shown below. It is an invoice from the Datini archive (fondo Datini), whose documents cover the years 1363 to 1410 AD.
For linguists and cryptographers, the ‘merchants handbook’ genre may prove helpful, as texts of that kind include non-standard vocabularies, technical terms for commercial practices, local and foreign terms for weights and measures (as pronounced and written at the time), and place-names that have been since forgotten or replaced, or which are now rather differently spelled.
As Stanley says when speaking of Pegolotti’s ‘Guide for merchants’,
[The section] entitled Dichiarigioni … translates a host of commercial and nautical terms from Pegolotti’s native Tuscan Italian into twenty-two dialects spoken throughout the Mediterranean. Here, the reader becomes familiar with phraseologies in Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Cuman, even Trapezuntine – the local vernacular of Trebizond. The striking similarities found in Pegolotti’s translations (doana, for instance, denotes “tariff ” in the Arabic, Sicilian, Neapolitan, and Pugliese dialects) immediately conjure up the lingua franca, the amalgamation of Arabic and Romance vernaculars that served as a “language of convenience” in the pre-modern Mediterranean. According to Karla Mallette, this communicative tool – constantly shifting to meet local dialectic exigencies – served to transcend the linguistic divisions that stymied communication and functioned as a strong vehicle of acculturation (Mallette, 2014: 332).
Joseph F. Stanley, ‘Negotiating Trade: Merchant Manuals and Cross Cultural Exchange in the Medieval Mediterranean’ Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Vol. XXX, Issue 1, (January 2018): pp. 102-112.
Mallette, Karla. “Lingua Franca.” in Peregrine Horden, Sharon Kinoshita (eds.), A Companion to Mediterranean History.(2014). pp. 79-90.
Stanley’s article also includes a handy list of published examples:
Allan Evans, ed., Francesco Balducci Pegolotti: La pratica della mercatura (1936).
Alison Hanham, ‘A Medieval Scots Merchant’s Handbook’, The Scottish Historical Review, Oct., 1971, Vol. 50, No. 150, Part 2 (Oct., 1971), pp. 107-120. The volume is described as ‘thirty-five vellum leaves sewn up in three gatherings into a small book measuring 31.1 X 9.5 cm.
George Christ, Trading conflicts : Venetian merchants and Mamluk officials in late medieval Alexandria (Brill: 2012)
I don’t normally list sources written in languages other than English since it’s the only language I can be sure all readers are comfortable with. In this case I must make an exception because there is nothing in English covering the Spanish merchant handbooks.
M. Gual Camarena, El primer manual hispánico de mercadena, siglo XV (Barcelona, 1981); The so-called Libre de conexenses de spicies – a manuscript in Catalan dating to 1455.
M. Gual Camarena, Vocabulario del comercio medieval (Barcelona, 1976), 200-202,
J. A. Sesma Muñoz and A. Líbano Zumalacarregui, Léxico del comercio medieval en Aragón (Siglo XV) (Zaragoza, 1.982), 81-82.
For myself, I don’t believe the whole ‘answer’ to the Voynich manuscript lies in such merchant handbooks. Illustrations in the zibaldoni are as plainly an expression of western Christian culture as images in the Voynich manuscript are not. Pace Gheuens and others, the Voynich manuscript contains none but a few peripheral allusions to Christian culture, while those western mercantile handbooks are very plainly a product of that environment, manifested in their written texts as in their illustrations.
There may be more hope from illustrated commercial ‘lists’ as invoices or bills of lading. One expects that any purchasing agent working in a distant port or market would be more likely to rely on local residents for his vocabulary and any images of local goods. To buy in a foreign market you need a way to name the desired goods, and to ensure that what you get is what you wanted. Caveat emptor was the ruling principle of medieval trade.
A rare insight into western agents abroad:
Deborah Howard, ‘Death in Damascus: Venetians in Syria in the Mid-Fifteenth Century’, Muqarnas, Vol. 20 (2003), pp. 143-157.
Robert Sabatino Lopez, ‘European Merchants in the Medieval Indies: The Evidence of Commercial Documents’, The Journal of Economic History , Nov., 1943, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Nov., 1943), pp.164-184. A seminal paper, still worth reading.
Two papers on echoes of eastern art in western medieval works.
Philippe Junod, ‘Retour sur l’Europe “chinoise”‘, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 32, No. 63 (2011), pp. 217-258.
David Jacoby, Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 58 (2004), pp. 197-240.
Since I’ve broached the subject of foreign agencies in distant ports and markets, and we’re discussing trade in vegetable products, I should add some brief notes on the conditions of trade east of Suez. I expect that any researcher having the necessary interest, and languages, won’t need any start-up bibliography, though, so will add none.
In an earlier post,* I quoted a passage describing how tax-assessors registered goods brought to Vietnam by sea. My source used an obsolete term – ‘Annam’ – to describe the greater coastal region of Vietnam, a term that is no longer used in modern secondary scholarship.
*D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Pharma’ Pt.2.i – the legend’, Voynich Revisionist (blogpost, 8th August 2021) citing Moti Chandra, Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India (1977) p.206.
We are not told if any eastern inventory lists were illustrated but it is telling that they are said to be ‘on leather’.
About China, one website mentions that “two graves from the Han Dynasty (c. 202 BCE to c. 220 CE) contained ancient silk scrolls with references to 247 herbal substances used for medicinal purposes” and that “At the grave site of a doctor from the Later Han era (c. 25 to c. 220 CE), archaeologists found 92 wooden bamboo slips with pharmaceutical data which included a list of thirty prescriptions, referring to a hundred herbal medicines”. The site is anonymous and offers no references for that information.
I include it here chiefly because Marcus Marci’s letter of 1640 uses a term (schaedata) which, as Neal notes, is not in the classical dictionaries. On looking into it, I concluded that the word connects with the small wooden or papyrus slips once used as a ‘tag’-label for scrolls in Hellenistic and Roman libraries.
Books made of small wooden – or more exactly of palm-leaf – strips were once very widely used in regions beyond Europe, from North Africa through Arabia to the Himalayas and from India to south-east Asia. They are still used in some areas to this day and may take various forms, from the concertina-fold characteristic of Japanese and Chinese works on paper, to the wheel-form, or just a stack of strips pierced and linked at one or more points. Some palm-leaf books – especially those concerned with medicine or magic, were occasionally adorned with images.
It will be remembered that Georg Baresch said the information gathered in ‘eastern parts’ had been brought back and then copied (presumably on vellum) using the present Voynichese script and that no other European manuscript dated to before 1440 has yet been found in which there are long lengths folded in as we find in the Voynich manuscript.
Again in a commercial context we learn that the herbal-pharmaceutical genre known as Shennong Bencao jing (Shen Nong’s classic of Herbal Medicine), of which there were several versions, served as a basic forme for commercial documentation – tax assessment or to create bills of lading in areas under Chinese influence.
On the same point, the Bencao Gangmu ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ which was produced during the Ming dynasty includes in addition to pharmaceutical information, information about biology, chemistry, geography, mineralogy, geology, history, mining and astronomy. This Bencao Gangmu has been translated into more than 20 languages and is still in print and used as a reference book.
A related work, Nong Shu, described as an agricultural text, includes a useful commercial object – a revolving typecase. Written by the Chinese official and agronomist Wang Zhen, the Nong Shu was published in 1313 AD. (image and information from ‘Chinese inventions’ – wiki article.
For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, the present regime in China does not like the herbal ‘Shen nong’ to be spoken about. Shen nong was the legendary creator of the far east’s herbal medicine tradition.
Shouzhong Yang, The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica: A Translation of the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (Blue Poppy Press. 2007).
Below is an illustration from a nineteenth-century account of Chinese medicines, one which retains the layout of the original works.
The diverse sites and pages maintained by CMU includes the following, which has a useful bibliography.
Nestorian influence is posited for the fact that the earlier [Shen-nong] Xinxiu bencao includes a recipe for theriaca.
Greek medicine is believed introduced into China by the Nestorians, whose influence is also seen by some scholars in works recovered from Dunhuang, in which the Greeks’ “four-element” theory and medical treatments are mentioned that similar to those practiced in ancient Greece. They also contain what is described vaguely as “certain Christian teachings concerning the sick”. An important study of Nestorian influence across early medieval China focuses on transmission of the eggplant (aubergine) but though I introduced this theme in my own research posts some time ago and treated it then in detail in discussing the presence of the Nestorians and Armenians in the medieval east, and the extant books of Nestorian medicine, I won’t repeat those references here. They are better left for posts about other sections.
To while away the tedium of long journeys, there was a genre of ‘journey books’, in which there was usually a combination of practical information, passages of one’s favourite epics or poetry and so on. In Persian, these were known as ‘Ark books’ (sefinat) and the poems of Hafiz were especially popular. In the west, the ‘Journal of Michael of Rhodes’ is a good example of the usual mix in Latin works.
Alan Stahl, Pamela Long, and David McGee. The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript (2009).
It was in a very late sixteenth-century illustrated ‘catalogue’ of goldsmiths’ designs that I found the first evidence of any forms akin to anything in the ‘leaf and root’ section. Far too late to have influenced the Voynich manuscript, it is not entirely impossible that a reverse influence might have occurred. This is one for the ‘Rudolfine’ theorists because although these drawings were made before the designer, Erasmus Hornick, went to Rudolf’s court, he did die there.
Erasmus Hornick had been born and/or trained as a goldsmith-jeweller in Antwerp, then lived for some years in Augsburg (1555?-1559) before moving to Nurnberg (1559-1566) where he published his designs as pattern books. Returning Augsburg in 1566, he was later – during the last months of his life – appointed Hofwekstatt by Rudolf II (1582-3) with “the distinctly modest salary of six Guldern monthly”, to use Hayward’s phrase.
John Hayward, ‘The Goldsmiths’ Designs of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek [Cod. Icon. No.I99] reattributed to Erasmus Hornick’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 110, No. 781 (Apr., 1968), pp. 201-207.
A closer, but spurious, connection to Rudolf was created when some of Hornick’s fanciful patterns, included in a volume of such designs, was later inscribed on its frontispiece, in Latin, Sunt Figurae num 275 Rudolfi Caesaris Thesaurus Delineat (There are designs the number of 275 representing the treasury of the Emperor Rudolf.) It is not true. One of these days I might satisfy my curiosity about how the handwriting compares with Mnishovsky’s.
There is some doubt about when Hornick produced the last of his designs, but it is clear that his relatively simple designs (such as the three perfume-containers) belong to his early, Antwerp period, so that while they would appear to be influenced by an idea of the exotic and ‘ancient’, any closer connection to the Voynich manuscript must relate to the port of Antwerp or some similar centre whose trade permitted a local resident to see curious foreign models and build his own fantastic, forms in the post-Renaissance ‘Mannerist’ taste by incorporating disparate elements from the originals.
A similar implication of commercial access to eastern routes and goods informs works produced by the family Miseroni, who also produced works for Rudolf II. A discussion of the Miseroni works, in connection with the Voynich manuscript, came, and went, some years ago. I’m afraid I cannot now discover who began that discussion – it may have been Rich Santacoloma.
I don’t want to waste time discussing such post-1450 events or persons, so I’ll close with a brief comment on the routes and goods which brought such things as lapis lazuli and nephrite jade to Prague by the late sixteenth century.
The interesting thing about Miseroni is that his work incorporates lapis lazuli (obtained from Afghanistan) and nephrite jade, which at that time is most likely to have been obtained from Khotan in the Tarim basin, brought then along high ‘silk roads’. What is puzzling is that jade, like porphyry (gained from a mine in Egypt), cannot be carved like any other stone, but only shaped. The skill must be taught by a master and in fact when it comes to porphyry, the secret of working it was only rediscovered about the turn of the twentieth century.
Add to these points that a number of the designs which were produced in Mannerist style purported to reproduce ancient or classical artefacts – though they display distinctly eastern characteristics – and it is clear that Athanasius Kircher was not the only man of his time to believe that something of the classical Mediterranean had reached so far. Certain of the Miseroni works appear to be artefacts brought from the east and only provided with decoration and mountings. Weight for weight, jade has always been more expensive than gold.
A series of articles on Miseroni, Rudolf and jade was published by ‘Friends of Jade’. here.
NOTE: Some of the information above (including the maps) was first published through voynichimagery in posts of Sept.12th., 2012 and December 26th., 2012 and another post which I drafted in 2017 but did not publish, 2017 being the year I closed off public access. Anyone wanting details of sources etc., from the original posts is free to email me.
Lawyers may have ‘learned friends’; scholars only colleagues.
Added note – 13th. March 2022. I’d prefer to add this as a ‘Comment’ but wordpress having decided comments are closed, I must add it here.
I have today received an email in which the writer expresses themselves rather strongly on what they see as my ‘hypocrisy’ for complaining about mis-use, co-option and so on of earlier writers’ work. They point to this post in particular, saying that I have wrongly credited Rene Zandbergen with making the ‘oak and ivy’ connection, and that Zandbergen simply took a different copy of the same work, then asserting or permitting others to believe it a discovery gained by him as result of original effort. If that is so, my apologies to Edith Sherwood and I agree that precedents should always be honoured even if a person later reaching the same opinion was, at the time, ignorant of that precedent. Sherwood is of course not the author of the email but is the person whom the correspondent asserts should be credited with that ‘find’. Since – as you’ll see from the post below, I dispute Zandbergen’s idea, and have not seen the precedent by Sherwood, I can only report the complaint publicly and apologise should an apology be in order. If anyone would care to provide me with evidence of Sherwood’s having earlier made that connection, I’ll happily accept it and add the details here. In the absence of date-able evidence, however I must leave the original post (below) as it is.
I’m going to be away for some weeks, so here’s an extra-extra-long post (originally designed as five separate posts) to serve as holiday reading while I’m gone. 🙂
NB. To skip the preliminaries, start from the heading: ‘Living Ivy’.
Abstract: The Yale facsimile edition includes an essay predicated on the theory that the plant-pictures in the Voynich manuscript are related to the European ‘herbals’. In that essay a comparison is offered which, if it were it valid – might constitute the long-sought (but never found) proof for that theory, and further indicate that a niche exists for the Voynich plants within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis type. Credit for a comparison or ‘pairing’ of folio 35v with ‘oak and ivy’ from the ‘Manfredus’ herbal is claimed by Rene Zandbergen, whose influence on the study has been constant since the early 2000s. The following considers that experience, weighing the probability and evidence for and against such an interpretation of the image on f.35v.
WHEN later generations consider Rene Zandbergen’s contributions to Voynich studies, rating high on the list will surely be his constant presence.
For at least two decades Zandbergen has been constant in reading and collecting work and ideas related to this study, incorporating his selections from such matter into his website (since 2010), and sharing information more widely in comments to group discussions and in private communications. Voynich studies needs people with long memories; given the high turn-over in researchers and degrading standards for credits and documentation of precedents, for any true history of this study we must depend increasingly on the memories of a few among the old guard and the energetic efforts of even fewer among the new. Attempting to discover whether precedents exist before embarking on a line of investigation can be very hard work indeed, and whether one of the ‘old guard’ will trouble to consult their own memories can be a bit touch-and-go. After all, the study has devolved into a permanent ‘groundhog day’ since the early 2000s to the point where now any genuinely new insights are soon swallowed up in the mist, grabbed and repeated without mention of the source and then endlessly re-used and ‘re-discovered’ by amateurs – many of whom confuse original contribution with ‘unprecedented invention’ and fear to admit their debts lest it cost them glory.Trying to work against that tide, to disentangle genuine from spurious claims of ‘discovery’ would require an entire team of fiercely determined and rigidly ethical members of an ‘old guard’. And what Voynichero would care to spend more time on seeing justice done than on following his own area of interest? But, as and when they choose, ‘old-timers’ such as Pelling and Zandbergen are our best hope.How many hours Zandbergen has devoted to building his website one cannot imagine. It has now become the ‘go to’ site for newcomers, journalists and others who want a quick key, to check details of dates or of biographies. It has also provided Zandbergen himself with a ready reference from which he, no less than journalists or newomers, can draw in writing essays.Despite this time-consuming project, Zandbergen has still found enough time (almost every day) to be present in most often-visited public arenas and there to take account of the discussions and contribute to them from the mass of material at his fingertips.His early achievements include his translation into machine code of Gabriel Landini’s transcription of Voynichese – giving us EVA. Another was his liaison with an Austrian television company which commissioned certain scientific tests.For all this – as Zandbergen reminded members of a forum just today – his qualifications are not in any field relevant to medieval manuscript studies, history or art and he should be regarded as an amateur.Few amateurs having twenty years’ interest in anything could resist the temptation to “puff” rather more.Also of value have been Zandbergen’s computing skills which produced the graphs and diagrams used to illustrate the information collected into his website.
As constant as that work has been, and his presence in most public conversations about the Voynich manuscript, so too he has shown unwavering fidelity to a theory which he and his co-author, Rafel Prinke, espoused early – perhaps as early as 2000.
At the time it was a ‘fringe’ theory, asserting that the manuscript had been made in German-speaking regions and was in some sense an expression of central European culture, and more specifically with content congenial to the interests of Rudolf II and other members of the central European nobility.While the evidence for this variation on d’Imperio’s version of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory is no more than it was two decades ago, the intervening period has seen constant efforts at its retrospective justification: German calendars have been hunted for images of Saggitarius with a crossbow and other German-language or German-made works hunted for costume which could be argued similar to costumes seen on figures in the Vms. An enormous amount of time and talk has been expended on a couple of lines of marginalia which are claimed German. For lack of other researchers as constant and equally consistent in enthusing others to collaborate, material accumulated today not only leans heavily to that side of the scales but almost entirely on it. Today the ‘central European’ idea has achieved the status of what Santacoloma might call canonised myth, but which is better described, I think, as the process by which ‘I feel’ becomes ‘it might have been’ and gradually via ‘it could have been’ is taken for ‘it must be’. The process has taken twenty years and the labour of a great many co-operating ‘ants’ as Ellie Velinska once called that group.Without being strident, Zandbergen has also quietly and unwaveringly introduced an idea that not only Rudolf, but Rudolf’s brother Matthias (Corvinus) owned the manuscript.Whether the notion that the manuscript was stolen by Jesuits originated with the Prinke-Zandbergen theory or not is another point difficult to determine but as yet there is no evidence offered by the manuscript or by any document of which I’m aware to justify either the the ‘Corvinus’ idea or that one. On the face of it, the Jesuits’ acquisition of the work is perfectly transparent: it became a Jesuit possession when gifted to Athanasius Kircher by Marcus Marci – and we have the letter of gift to prove it.Otherwise, the Prinke-Zandbergen narrative appears to maintain the standard ideas in, or extrapolated from, Wilfrid’s tale of 1921 – such as that the manuscript is obscure only because meant for a social and intellectual elite, and that it is at base a manuscript composed of ‘ordinary’ European material including occult and/or scientific matter such as alchemy, magic, astrology and medicine in which Rudolf II (1552-1612) and his aristocratic circle were most interested.Here, however, we must be grateful for the radiocarbon dating which permits us (if we wish) to limit the range of Voynich research to the terminus ad. quem of 1438.I say this because it is easy to imagine where the ‘Corvinus’ idea might lead theorists less self-controlled than Zandbergen. Matthias was initially given control over Hungary at a time when a large part of it was owned by Rudolf’s close contemporary Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) and within modern Hungary there is a popular movement re-inventing her image to have Bathory a nice aristocratic woman interested in women’s medicine. It takes little imagination to see how such an idea could be imposed on the manuscript’s content.But, as I say, we can halt if we choose at 1438 and maintain a proper level of skepticism not only about the ‘Corvinus’ idea but about the third-hand rumour of Rudolf’s supposed ownership.My own position is best expressed by quoting Patrick Lockerby, one of the very few left standing when the vellum’s radiocarbon date-range was published. Well before the test was run he had said:
My dating of the manuscript is 1350 to 1450. From that perspective, whatever happened .. after 1450 is of no relevance in formulating any theory about the Voynich ms.
~ Patrick Lockerby.
Zandbergen has proven no less constant in maintaining his opinion of the plant-pictures, assuming (as had almost all before him) that these must constitute a variant form of Latin herbal: that is, a catalogue of medicinal plants employed in Latin (western Christian) Europe.
During the nineteen-twenties or -thirties when the manuscript was generally believed personally written by Roger Bacon, the limited horizons* of Wilfrid’s narrative and of any dependent on it permitted few alternatives.
However, one might have supposed that by 2000, with nine decades’ of failed attempts to discover in the Latins’ herbals any matching images – that is, matching in sequence and in style of drawing – and with Tiltman’s negative judgement on that score expressed in the late 1960s, that researchers might have begun casting about more widely: extending the research laterally (to include other regions and peoples) or vertically to consider plant-imagery made to other purposes and/or in other media.
It didn’t happen – not even when Tiltman’s paper was released by NSA in 2002, under the Freedom of Information Act, or when qualified persons differed from the conservatives. Those who were not ignored (as Mazars and Wiart were for years), were met with the usual methods by which the most conservative element avoids discussion of evidence and argument. On a personal note, I gained most amusement from Pelling’s suggesting that in explaining the botanical imagery and the role of mnemonics that I suffered from pareidolia. The role of mnemonics in imagery had been unexplored by the Voynicheros before then, but the term is now constantly used, even if rarely informed by knowledge of the scholarship or of any work later than Yates – Yates being mentioned by d’Imperio. Carruthers’ revolutionary studies have been often recommended by the present author, but no evidence of them appears in other Voynich writings to date.
Part of Tiltman’s verdict was quoted earlier, but here it is in more detail:
if the plain text of the Voynich manuscript belongs to the illustrations on the same pages, as we have a right to expect in the complete absence of evidence to the contrary, then much the greater part of that text is related to plants. However, I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed.
[pdf] John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript: ‘the most mysterious manuscript in the world’ [released by NSA under the Freedom of Information Act, 23-Apr-2002 (Case #19159)
Tiltman was not a man to accept hearsay and I think we may take it that he spoke from personal knowledge of the Friedman groups’ range of research. It is possible that some combined list of works they consulted might one day be found among documents still at the NSA, or in the George C. Marshall Foundation.
[Part 2] What was it which prevented Tiltman’s pronouncement’s being taken seriously, and the lesson taken from the failures of the preceding decades?
It is an interesting question and deserves more than the briefest answer, but in the space of this post the short answer will have to do, and it is this: that by the time the first mailing list closed there was a small but growing and determined ‘conservative’ element which adopted d’Imperio’s version of Wilfrid’s narrative with others of the Friedmans’ ideas as constituting a final word on the manuscript’s history and character, and perceived its own task less as work of investigation than of retrospective justification for that matter.
Before the 1960s, none had looked further than Europe because they supposed the manuscript’s composition coeval with its manufacture and they supposed all due to a single author imagined European.
After the early 2000s, any who began to consider any but a Latin European as determining the manuscript’s content was discouraged from doing so by the ‘mass’ online – and often as much by personal ridicule as by reasoned argument. Of this unpleasant tactic – playing the man, not the ball – a precedent was also provided by reports of the Friedmans’ mockery of others, including of Professor Romaine Newbold. Jorge Stolfi was among the first of the more recent ‘scalps’ taken by such means.
A hardening ‘conservative’ position presented itself as the ‘common sense’ position, and for the new wave of Voynicheros who appeared in public conversations after c.2004 or so, these now-entrenched ideas were accepted as if they had been established from solid evidence: they served as premises rather than as speculations to be tested – and most obviously with the ‘softer’ narratives about theoretical histories for the manuscript or notions about its imagery.
Efforts to describe, explain, decipher or translate Voynichese remained generally subject to more rigor and overall remained focused on the researcher’s work not his character. Critics were expected to explain their criticisms in detail; and (unlike other areas) no vague assertion that the researcher was ‘talking nonsense’ was enough. Witness the technical and well informed criticisms of even so patently nonsensical a paper as Cheshire’s.
But with that difference between standards for discussing ‘Voynichese’ theories versus historical or iconographic matters, there began the dichotomy which exists today. Opinions about the written part of the text usually weigh the statistical and linguistic evidence, but those focused on the pictorial content or historico-social environment regularly witness the personality-centred sort of attack as theory-defence. It is a pity that this dividing fence has been flattened recently – again with criticisms of Cheshire as example.
Any Voynich researcher or writer soon becomes aware that ad.hominem regularly meets dissent from the ‘conservative’position in certain areas and almost invariably follows criticism of any opinions or theories particularly associated with a few of the best known ‘Voynicheros’.
Here, Nick Pelling has a well-earned reputation for directing fluent streams of vitriol against any who are less than approving of his friends’ theories and methods and, to a lesser extent of his own. In general, however, he has an equally well-earned reputation for permitting free expression in comments to his blog, sometimes extraordinary patience with the most ‘out there’ theorists, and his academic standards in keeping clear the difference between his own work and others’ remains impeccable.
In one way, there can be no criticism made of any blogger’s choice of opinion, or of response to comments to their blog, but given Pelling’s large following, high profile and standing as one of the ‘old guard’, the old problem of influence and responsibility must arise. Knowing that any who would subject Pelling’s “machine-plants” idea to detailed criticism and dismissal, or dispute Zandbergen’s ‘oak-ivy’ comparisons as I’m about to do may incur public denigration of their intelligence, competence, motives and personal character is certainly a deterrent to putting higher value on the manuscript’s accurate evaluation than on the ‘Voynich community’s bonhomie. The revisionist might hope for both, but I should think not in this generation.
Since my own is the only name I feel entitled to mention, I’ll say that during the near-decade in which I offered historical notes and analytical-critical commentary on the Voynich manuscript’s imagery the work received only two types of response from the ‘conservatives’: results gained from that original research were taken and re-presented without acknowledgements, and/or were met by ‘criticisms’ of the ad.hominem sort.
There was just one informed criticism made over the entire period: a correction to my description of the religious order to which Hugh of St. Victor belonged.
No qualified person in my field had been involved in the study, as far as I could discover, since the 1930s and that might explain the resort to personal criticisms by persons lacking the wherewithall to make comments of any other type. Recently, the well-qualified Alexandra Marracini has produced a paper which reminds me of my very first essays on the subject of this manuscript, when I still thought I’d be dealing with nothing more unusual than the home-made book of some amateur western Christian author.
It was from about 2010, once I began sharing online and it became clear that this material could not be made to fit a ‘central European’ or ‘Latin cultural expression’ theory that the nasty response began. From the first it was of the ‘no-holds-barred’ type and was disseminated as brainless and information-zero ‘memes’, inventing which seems to be the one real skill that a couple of ‘Voynicheros’ may claim.
My persistence in seeking to read, and then to acknowledge precedents – if any – for my views was re-interpreted by ‘meme’ as an effort to claim credit: ‘to make a name’ as that meme had it. Another meme that I recall said that some students of mine were not real people (the reason being, apparently, that we decided their only access to the ‘Voynich-Colosseum’ should be through my own email address). The result of that little ‘meme’ was abuse which the students, their parents and the school found as irrational as it was unmerited, and the ‘Voynich’ option was terminated. You may be pleased to hear the credits were made transferrable since cyber-bullying should not cost credit-points. Another slander-meme impugned by qualifications; the least principled did not think it too grubby for them to start memes calling me a liar, or when that one didn’t quite catch on, upgrading it to mental derangement. Of late, it seems, the one or two core bullies have been toning it down a bit: perhaps someone explained to them in one-syllable words the meaning of ‘fact’ ‘fiction’ ‘slander’ and ‘libel’.
The meme of the month – towards me; but I’m not the only troublemaker – is ‘nonsense’. Not exactly the quality of a Times Higher Education review for the amount of research it tries to cover, is it?
It wasn’t the memes, or even the fools who are unable to find better ways to defend their theory which bothered me most; it’s the number of sheep who, when the water-cooler guy says ‘Bah! duly say ‘Baaah’.
I had supposed that with a manuscript which presents so many non-trivial problems, the sort of person who’d stick around would be one having the type of critical intelligence which likes difficult problems.
But of course, anyone with that sort of intelligence can’t be hypnotised into saying ‘baaa’ just because the chap next to them got it from someone who was told it by someone else.
They say instead – ‘where did you get that idea?’ and ‘Show me your evidence’ and.. in this particular case ‘And exactly what does this tell me that might help me better understand Beinecke MS 408’?
And so back to that more interesting matter…
The ‘Oak and Ivy’ comparison in the Yale facsimile essay.
In its premises and its approach the ‘herbal’ essay in the Yale facsimile edition has much in common with the book by Tucker and Janick, in that it aims only to illustrate and thus to convince readers of its premises and its premises are its (foregone) conclusions. It is an engaging history of the medieval herbal manuscript, but one illustrated by ‘pairings’ from the Voynich manuscript – pairings whose validity is treated as self-evident.
Among them is one which – were it valid – would be of enormous importance for this study for it would offer the long-sought proof for that ‘variant herbal’ speculation, and indicate that within the stemmata for copies of the Tractatus de herbis mss exists some niche for the Voynich manuscript’s plant-pictures.
Because it could be of such great importance, it has to be treated seriously and seriously evaluated. One might wish it were not a ‘pairing’ for which the credit falls to a member of the ‘old guard’ but the credit is claimed by Rene Zandbergen.
He presented his ‘match’ some years ago in a power-point presentation, later passing it to others to re-present (with credit accorded him) as e.g. to Ellie Velinska. Still later, it was used in forum discussions where again the thanks and credit were received by Zandbergen. Finally, with acceptance already general among the ‘online community’ the same pairing was included in the Yale essay.
On occasion Zandbergen has mentioned that Edith Sherwood had ( I am told ‘earlier’) compared folio 35v with one in a medieval manuscript. Zandbergen’s comment takes the following form in one forum exchange:
EllieV – 11-02-2016 The most popular example is the oak/ivy combination found by Rene in other old herbals
ReneZ – 11-02-2016 Edith Sherwood independently noticed the similarity, in her case with the Sloane MS, while I saw it in the Paris BN manuscript.
The British library’s Sloane collection includes more than one herbal, as does the collection in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France but I note that where Sherwood’s habit was always to pair a picture from the Voynich manuscript to some later botanical illustration or to a modern photograph of her preferred ‘i.d.’, some images are now included from medieval manuscripts and now she pairs folio 35v with an image of oak-and-ivy from Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 (folio 38v) – to which I’ll return further below,
About Zandbergen’s alleged ‘match’ only one point need be addressed and I’ll treat the vine-like element. To discuss the pairing in full detail (as I’ve done elsewhere) would quadruple the length of this post.
Zandbergen’s discussion of the plant-pictures, from 2000 until the Yale essay was published has relied in one sense on generations of the ‘Voynich herbal’ idea but more particularly on Minta Collins’ book to which Zandbergen has constantly referred, and just as constantly referred others.
Published in that year (2000), Collins’ Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition became available two years before the NSA released Tiltman’s paper of 1967/8. It would be two years later still before we had Touwaide’s critical review of Collins’ book in 2004, but that appears to have escaped general notice for the following decade and more, until the present author brought it to the attention of Voynich ninja members.
Minta Collins, Medieval Herbals: the Illustrative Tradition.(2000)
the above, reviewed by Alain Touwaide – Isis, Vol. 95, No.4 (2004) pp. 695-697.
Meanwhile, constant mention and recommendations of Collins’ book within the ‘Voynich community’ had seen it elevated to a status almost equal to that accorded d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma – whose quotation some suppose a final word. This same period saw escalate a trick of equating conservative ideas with the ‘good and sensible’ to the point where those engaging in original lines of research were discouraged – and if not easily by ‘blanking’ or by citations from the two ‘bibles’ or items extracted from German medieval works, then next by comments suggesting that only a ‘bad or irrational’ person would oppose the ‘central European cultural expression’ theory.
By about 2013-14, assertions of ‘likeness’ met positive comment only if the comparison came from a Latin herbal or from central European manuscripts and books made between the thirteenth-mid sixteenth centuries – unless it were to ‘prove’ the work a Latin product. Velinska’s ‘Duc de Berry’ theory was exempt. The temporal range narrowed somewhat after 2013, as challenges to the radiocarbon dating of 2011 fell silent. The conservatives’ geographic bounderies are widening a little further today but speculations about alchemical content, inherently anachronistic, remain current and so widely believed that to so much as doubt them has recently evoked an ‘eye-rolling’ from Pelling. It would seem that another myth has achieved canonisation.
Zandbergen has displayed the same constancy in maintaining the Voynich plant pictures a ‘herbal’ as he has shown in all else, discouraged neither by Tiltman’s negative judgement nor by a century’s failure to find any place for them in that tradition. It is not an idea of Zandbergen’s invention, merely maintaining the speculations and assumptions of Wilfrid Voynich in 1912 and by the Friedman groups from 1944 onwards.
[Part 3] The ‘Manfredus herbal’
Against this pairing by Zandbergen of an image from the Voynich manuscript with one from the ‘Manfredus’* herbal we have the general objection that the ‘herbal’ idea remains a speculation and that were it well-founded there is a low probability that the same alleged ‘match’ would have passed all earlier notice. Believing the labels might offer a key to Voynichese, the Voynich plant-pictures and accompanying text have always been a focus of study.
*properly: Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823, but very often seen as ‘Manfredus de Monte Imperiali’
The Manfredus ‘herbal’ has been among the best- and most widely known of all medieval Latin copies of the ‘tracts on herbs’ and was so before Wilfrid had ever seen his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript. By then the ‘Manfredus’ was already in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and detailed knowledge of it had spread across the Atlantic, in proof of which I’ll cite the book-length monograph by Edward Sanford Burgess, published in 1902.
Burgess was then a resident of New York and was still so when Wilfrid migrated to that city from London, bringing his widely-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ – most of it filled with plant-pictures.
Burgess’ book-length monograph had been published by the Torrey Botanical Club journal (which is still in publication). As handy guide to the text, Burgess included a ‘Tabular view of Plant-writers before 1600’ and as you see from the clip below (from p.98) the ‘Manfredus’ manuscript is included, dated it to c.1400.
Edward Sandford Burgess, ‘Studies in the History and Variations of Asters: Part 1: History of PreClusian Botany in its relation to Aster, Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol.10 (22 November 1902), pp. iii, v, vii-xii, 1-5, 7, 9-93, 95-447.r
Within his monograph, in speaking of Dianthus, Burgess says, “… I have seen the plant pictured in a book which is written by Manfrēdus de Monte Imperiali.” (” Librum de simplicibus , qui in bibl. Parisina latet,”said Sprengel of Manfred’s work, in 1797 ; Fabricius knew of a copy in Paris about 1750..” (p.380)
Today, the date offered for Manfredus manuscript – that is, the digitised copy – at Gallica is again circa 1400, but the Bibliothèque nationale de France has 1330-1340, leaving place of manufacture unspecified. A website called ‘Manuscript Miniatures’ ascribes it to Pisa without explanation. And to Lillian Armstrong it was ‘Lombard’.
Lillian Armstrong, ‘The Illustration of Pliny’s Historia naturalis: Manuscripts before 1430′, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes Vol. 46 (1983), pp. 19-39.
Some of those earlier attributions to place may owe less to consideration of the drawings or palette than to interpretations of the description ‘… Monte Imperiali’ – on which subject the present writer’s opinion as offered after looking into the question in 2016. Taking it that the ‘di’ here signifies “sent out from” rather than “born in” I concluded the post by saying:-
I see no reason why the “Manfredi di maestro Berardo da Montepeloso medicus” listed by Calvanico [on whom see Collins n.119] should not be the same person as that associated with BNF Lat 6823…Nor is it difficult to suggest why a clerk sent ‘abroad’ on behalf of Maestro Berardo might choose to describe himself in that way rather than as from Montepeloso. A mere clerk, coming to an urban centre from the remote south of Italy – and from a place called “Mount Hairy” – would surely be sensitive to the sort of ridicule which urban lads would delight in heaping on a lowly ‘rustic’. Nor would that description be a lie, for Montepeloso (mod. Irsina) and its castle were imperial possessions until Frederick II gave them to the then newly-sanctioned Francsican order of preaching friars. Perhaps the local community itself had been used to speaking of the mount and its castle as ‘imperial’, but to determine the last point either way would require research of a depth it scarcely warrants.
D.N. O’Donovan, ‘A note on Manfredus di Monte…’ voynichimagery, (July 10th., 2016)
At the time none of the items in that paragraph, save Collins’ reference to Calvanico, was to be found in any of the usual Voynich writers, though (as so often) the situation may have changed without notice.
A more recent scholarly source is the following volume, with Givens’ valuable essay on the Tractatus de herbis:
Jean A. Givens, ‘Reading and Writing the Illustrated Tractatus de herbis, 1280-1526′ in Givens, Reeds and Touwaide (eds.), Visualizing Medieval Medicine and Natural History, 1200-1550 (2006). pp.115-156.
In c.2010, the idea was prevalent in Voynich forums that ‘Manfredus di Monte Imperiali’ was son to Frederick II. This is not so, though he may have been a namesake and the same idea is found in other and older writings. It is not inexplicable if we suppose it due to a misinterpretation of the dedication which the noble Manfredus included in a thirteenth-century copy of Pseudo-Aristotle’s ‘De pomo’. That dedication is quoted in
Lynn Thorndike, ‘The Latin Pseudo-Aristotle and Medieval Occult Science’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 1922), pp. 229-258. (n.39 p.237).
[Part 4] So, to return to Burgess. A botanist with a particular interest in the history of plant-pictures and -texts made within the Greco-Latin world and to the 17th century lives in a city to which there comes a much-advertised ‘Roger Bacon manuscript’ filled with what are thought to be herbal pictures. His particular focus is on antique and later mentions of the ‘aster’ family. Does it seem likely that he could resist trying to discover what members of that family were recorded by Roger Bacon, an idol of the time?
And if he were to go to Wilfrid’s bookshop to express interest in the manuscript, would Wilfrid deny a potential buyer? And seeing those images, is it likely that Burgess (among the many others, including Fr. Petersen or members of the Friedman groups) would consistently fail to notice that folio 35v was ‘identical’ or even a ‘close match’ for an image in the well-known ‘Manfredus’ manuscript?
I do not know if Burgess ever saw the Voynich manuscript, though I suspect Tiltman saw Burgess’ ‘Tabular view’ and that it is among the reasons he can speak with such certainty of the “very limited range” of “writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries”.
But Burgess’ example illustrates my point that the Manfredus ‘herbal’ was well and widely known to specialists on both sides of the Atlantic even before Wilfrid bought the ‘ugly ducking’. Seeking precedents those as interested and well informed as Petersen was and as dedicated as the Friedman groups were could hardly have failed to hunt it for something ‘like’, whether or not they heeded the vital point already made by RIchard Salomon in 1936, that locating precedents or antecedents means matching style of drawing and comparable sequences. I’ve already quoted that letter to Anne Nill in full, but here’s the critical sentence:
“… I am convinced that the only possibility of deciphering would be given by finding an older series of plant pictures corresponding in its sequence to the arrangement of pictures in the Voynich manuscript.”
Richard Salomon to Anne Nill (July 9th., 1936 ),
Altogether the circumstances offer an a priori argument against Zandbergen’s ‘match’ being valid – at least within the historical and social context he presumes – but here it will be enough to address just one of the many points at which the ‘match’ fails – the vine-like plant which Zandbergen claims equates to the Manfredus’ image for ivy.
Unless employed for purely decorative effect (e.g. ivy-rinceaux), or as crown for Dionysos or something of that kind, the depiction of ivy in medieval Latin graphic art identifies a living plant by two elements, only one of which is invariable.
The leaf was drawn (European ivy is evergreen) and if any form of support was shown, the image emphasises the ivy’s clinging character. That second is the invariable element . It is clear, too, that to the medieval draughtsman, ivy’s clinging was tp be depicted as ‘twining’ – akin to that of the bean or of the Convolvulus.
Sherwood’s current comparison for f.35v, as I mentioned before, is Brit.Lib. MS SLoane 4016 folio 38v. This certainly does show ivy (accuracy in a manuscript’s labels are not to be presumed), and it is equally clear that this draughtsman expresses himself through the usual conventions of Latins’ art; his ivy is denoted by its twining habit. He has also included the umbels of black berries. His leaves are given five lobes. Neither of the last two features is invariable. The ‘clinging’ character is.
Climbing ivy has leaves of varying form, with those of a non-flowering stem having 3–5 triangular-shaped lobes and those of flowering shoots being oval to eliptical. There is also a ‘ground ivy’ depicted in some herbals, but the point is that when shown with any supporting object or plant, the medieval image tells the reader it is an ivy plant by means of that character of ‘clinging’ which is depicted as a twining about the support. Not what we see in folio 35v of Beinecke MS 408, where the vine-like plant is not only shown to be unable to cling, but lacks any leaf. If the latter was intended to signify the plant a deciduous one, then it cannot be European ivy. Again, though perhaps less significant, is the fact that the berries are not depicted using the convention of that ‘fan-shaped’ umbel. Whether the supporting plant is meant for an oak is a separate question, but the fact remains that if the vine was not intended to be read as ivy, Zandbergen’s comparison and claimed ‘match’ is invalid and once more we have no reasonable evidence, documentary or otherwise, retrospective or otherwise, in support of the constant assertion that the Voynich plant-pictures should belong in the Latins’ ‘herbals’ tradition.
Another ‘Sloane manuscript’ Sherwood had noted, inspiring Zandbergen to find more, was Sloane MS 56 (f.81r). Once again, the ‘twining’ habit and a leaf.
The next example (below, right) comes from another of the best-known Latin (western Christian) herbals, Brit.Lib. MS Egerton 747, and yet again we see that to define ivy it was not the flower or any set form for the leaf which was employed, but that close-clinging habit envisaged as twining. The suckers which we now suppose essential to the ivy are not depicted.
But here’s the interesting thing; that other Sloane manuscript (MS 56) noted by Sherwood is not a herbal. It’s an early fifteenth-century copy of John of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis.
[Part 5] John of Arderne’s glossary and its images
In a passing comment to Pelling’s blog, in 2009, Zandbergen mentioned a different copy of it, though also from the Sloane collection (Brit.Lib. Sloane 335), saying under Pelling’s post, ‘Pre-1450 German possibility’- Dec.21st., 2009) :
“ To add to the confusion… I just found a very nice illustration from a pre-1450 manuscript which is more Voynich Herbal-like than anything I can remember, yet is neither from Italy nor from Germany:. ”
He omitted there to mention that it was English or to give any details or date, but in the British Library catalogue Sloane MS 335 is dated to the ” last quarter of the 14th or 1st quarter of the 15th century”.
I find no evidence that Zandbergen explored the perceived similarities – nor did he specify any – but I agree that there are valid points of comparison to be found in some drawings from that manuscript and some few of the Voynich plant-pictures.
Still other copies remain of Arderne’s Liber Medicinalis and I think readers will be most interested in the catalogue record provided with another copy (made c.1475-1500) and now in Glasgow University’s Special Collections as MS Hunter 251 (U.4.9). Part of that record reads:
Arderne’s style of Latin is rather colloquial; indeed, his texts may almost be described as polyglot as his use of Latin is somewhat inconsistent. As well as providing glosses in English and Anglo-Norman, the text occasionally lapses in to sections written in English for no apparent reason. Although it is impossible to say whether this was how Arderne himself originally composed his work, or whether such anomalies crept in as his texts were copied from manuscript to manuscript, it nevertheless demonstrates the multilingual nature of literate medieval English society.
More, the pictures of interest in Sloane 335 follow after Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ of the ‘French’ plant-names used in Paris in his day. This raises the interesting question of whether the pictures in the earlier copy (Sloane MS 335) may derive from a source which Arderne had copied in Paris during the first half of the fourteenth century. (He is mentioned as serving at the Battle of Crecy). Here, some of the pictures
.. and below Arderne’s brief ‘glossary’ courtesy of the University of Glasgow and the internet archive, reproduced from a paper which D’arcy Power delivered in 1913 to the 17th. International Congress of Medicine in London. (Note: Power used the letter i in isolation to signify (that is…) which we normally render as ‘i.e.’.
Stylistic tricks in common.
The drawings do share certain stylistic tricks in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, but the comparison offers no easy key to the Voynich drawings; it is important to distinguish between the graphic techniques employed by draughtsmen and the objects of their attention.
Buds or fruit are shown emerging from the calyx in similar ways, in two cases in Sloane 335 and as comparison the image from folio 1r.
More interesting is the placement of just one black dot on each of a plant’s leaves.
The Sloane drawing appears to me (correct me if you know better) to use the dots to mean ‘burres’ or burrs. It may – but need not – carry the same sense in the Voynich image, though we note the leaves there are are also given spines, or bristles, along the leaf-margins
I would agree then with Rene’s observation, quoted above, that the drawings made in England about the same time as the Vms – but possibly from a French exemplar – display points in common with some in the Voynich manuscript, and that they look “more ‘Voynich like'” than anything I’ve seen so far cited by a Voynich writer – certainly more ‘Voynichlike’ than any image cited from a Latin herbal including the Tractatus de Herbis, de Avibus et Piscibus, of Manfredus di Monte Imperiali, (Paris, BNF ms. lat. 6823).
When commenting earlier on these drawings from Sloane 335 (in a postscript to ‘The Matter of “alchemical herbals”‘, voynichimagery, (April 8th., 2013), I added mention of a Peter of Arderne, referring to: Stewart C. Easton, Roger Bacon And His Search For A Universal Science (1952) pp.120-121.
Among other pointers to an Anglo-French environment for manufacture of the Voynich manuscript and its early use are that the month-names are closely similar to the Anglo-French forms; that (as I first pointed out), the linguistic link between a crossbowman and Sagittarius is offered by entries into the English military rolls where ‘Sagittario’ (and variants) are found used for crossbowmen hired for service in Calais, and again (this being now much re-used without mention of the present author), similarity in form between the type of ‘cloudband’ seen in some manuscripts of John Gower’s Vox Clamantis and (in those same), use of the ‘orb’ in three divisions to represent the world – replacing the older ‘T-O’ form. That ‘orb’ form is seen used for the same purpose in works by Roger Bacon and has been attributed to him. I won’t elaborate now, having already published several posts on these matters at voynichimagery.
In closing, readers please note that by c.2010, Dana Scott was alone convinced of an English provenance for the Voynich manuscript and he continued actively engaged in investigating English sources when I last saw his comments to the second mailing list. Any researcher finding him/herself moving towards a similar position should not neglect to consult the work Dana has done over so many years, nor to credit him by name when taking any of it… up. The second mailing list is still running, thanks to the generosity of Rich Santacoloma and I believe Dana remains a member.
typo corrected (thanks, Michael).25th May 2019; abstract added May 27th., 2019 and clarifications for the sense in which ‘Tractatus de herbis’ is used in this paper.
June 1st – Gower images added at Dr.O’Donovan’s instruction. June 3rd, detail from Brit.Lib. Arundel MS 83 f.130. L.S.
When readers comment via the contact form, I answer the first couple, but if more are about the same sort of thing, it’s worth a post.
Comments on the previous post were along the lines: ‘theory wars – so what?’ or ‘it will be a good thing when there’s just one opinion’ or ‘complaining about lots of opinions is just your resentment’.
The one I thought worth a post is the ‘theory war, so what?’. It means deferring mention of Rich Santacoloma’s work, but it’s obviously an issue readers think about. I’ve had to spend a few days thinking how best to illustrate the effect of a ‘theory-war’ on attitudes to the manuscript’s research.
There’s also the fact that decade’s close study of the primary document has naturally led me to form opinions from that evidence, so it would be right to say that I have a theory too, but I’d say it is a theory in the stricter sense of the term. I have no hesitation in changing my views should better and more solidly-based information turn up, The aim is to ‘get it right’ not to adopt the pose of Delphic oracle.
So then, perfectly aware that the old saying about stones and glass houses might apply, I’ve taken a tiny detail from folio 102, and traced the attitudes informing its discussion before, and then since 2012, when ‘theory-war’ really took hold. In my opinion, this very interesting manuscript deserves more care and more respect than it receives.
It isn’t easy, knowing how one flounders in the early stages, to now criticise offerings from people further back on the road. It seems hypocritical but then confusing discussion of method and standards in this study with attacks on personality is a particular habit of the theory-driven sort, and we mustn’t fall into that trap.
The sections average a bit over 1,000 words each.
I’d suggest you read one ‘phase’ and then take some time – perhaps a day – to think about that before reading the next.
But it’s up to you.
Phase 1: Scott and O’Donovan (a conversation – ‘book’? ‘block of indigo’?).
Folio 102 is part of the manuscript’s ‘root and leaf’ section, yet it includes the small drawing of a block, directly below which is another detail also coloured blue, though in an even deeper hue and whose tag has three or four glyphs in common with that above the block. (‘Four’ if it were supposed that the last glyph of the block’s tag were a final form of the other’s fourth glyph).
Apart from these details, and a couple discoloured, the remainder of that folio shows ‘leaf and root’ details in the usual colours of green and brown. The block thus presents an anomaly.
It would seem reasonable to begin by expecting both ‘blue details’ on folio 102 to be in some way connected to plants and to materials derived from them, and further that the draughtsman/painter intended his readers to understand that some more direct connection exists between these two blue items. Yet – though having a brushful of the blue to colour the block – the draughtsman/painter took another, and much deeper, blue to paint the lower detail. They are thus linked in one sense but distinguished in another.
In the left hand margin, level with these registers is an object set on ‘knife-blade’* legs of a sort not European, but attested in the east from a very early period indeed, and revived to as late as the seventeenth century.
*described in some sources as ‘tiger-claw’ legs. They are seen on objects intended to stand over a fire.
These items of information conveyed through the imagery, made sense in terms of indigo, its trade and use (as I’ll explain below), and though I read more before offering an opinion publicly, by 2011 I was ready to make a brief comment to the second mailing list. What I said was that I thought the block meant for a block of indigo.
Readers may find it useful to know that as a dyestuff, indigo is extracted from leaves of indigo tinctofera in the east, though another type of indigo plant, native to north Africa, had been brought into medieval Sicily. I knew that the dyestuff was sold in pressed blocks – wrapped and stitched into cloth during the medieval period* – and that it had still been brought into the Mediterranean at that time from further east, just as during the earlier Christian centuries – which last is attested by the Periplus Maris Erythraei, a work written in execrable semi-Greek around the 1stC AD and often called the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean_Sea’.
*today it is sold held together just by a lattice of thread – as in our header.
§39. The ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum but all their cargoes are carried up to the metropolis by the river, to the King. There are imported into this market a great deal of thin clothing, and a little spurious; figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine. On the other hand there are exported costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo. ..
No-one from the mailing list asked to know more of my reasons or evidence but Dana Scott was kind enough to reply, at least, saying he thought, rather, that it looked like a codex*, and linking to the illustration shown at left.
*BL MS Royal 19 D II – Bible Historiale of John the Good. Made in Central France (Paris) c. 1350-before 1356.
So far so good.
While I believe Dana thought -and perhaps still thinks – the manuscript reflects a Norman Anglo-French environment (and I’d agree that its later phases reflect that character), the conversation was not a theory-war about nationalities or personalities, but a discussion of what a draughtsman had intended his audience to see in a particular small drawing. It was a conversation about the primary evidence.
And that’s as far as it went in the mailing list. Though my comment elicited little response, there was no sniping or efforts at ‘put down’ in that brief conversation.
As I recall, it ended by being turned back to the central European theme by Zanbergen’s mentioning a herbal owned by a Bohemian king in which was reference to papyrus.
I did make a post for readers of my old ‘blogger’ blog Findings, (September 19, 2011) and later put a brief note about it at voynichimagery. There I gave a list of references and explained that the context in which the block appears on folio 102 was an essential part of my reasoning and the item’s location in terms of both history and geography.
This was done because, before the ‘theory-war’ took hold, it was expected that a case should be presented fairly and with enough detail to show it wasn’t just a flight of imagination but potentially something on which others could rely and use in their own research.
I showed why the identification was compatible with the internal and external evidence, including the testimony provided by other details from the ‘leaf and root’ section, and how it is that, altogether, these indicate first composition for the content during the earlier, rather than later centuries AD – but within the environment of an east-west network that could reasonably have brought such matter to western Europe before 1440 1400-1440.
I added that, if the draughtsman had wanted the block to be read as ‘indigo’ it would make sense to leave it pale save the dash of lighter blue, because not only was indigo pressed and sold stitched into a cloth wrapper, but the first stage of the process when the matter is extracted from the leaves results in what is known as ‘white indigo’ (the pure dyestuff). It is then combined with liquid in the vat, the cloths soaked, but only when they are removed and the dye re-oxygenates do they display that deep colour we call ‘indigo’. The dyed fabric (which I think the subject of the detail under the block) has its deeper colour then reasonably explained..
I went into the question more deeply – because it was still a question – finding in one medieval trader’s account – which I’m sorry to say I did not record in my notes – that traders were permitted to make a small hole in the cloth wrapper to test the content’s quality (and, I suspect, its identity) . This offered a reasonable explanation for the draughtsman’s troubling to add upon a drawing no more than a centimetre square, the two small circles we see placed at the seam-line in the upper middle and left-hand corner of the facing side (left). It might be meant to serve as reminder that with this good, one was permitted to inspect.
I won’t include much of my original reading list, but add a few first sources, and others I’ve noticed today.
A good first, overall view online in 2011 and still going – is here:
Jenny Balfour-Paul is the expert on Indigo in the Islamic world
Balfour-Paul J.,”The indigo industry of the Yemen”, in Serjeant, R.B., Bidwell, R.L., ed(s). Arabian studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1990) pp. 39-62. and then
Jenny Balfour-Paul, lndigo in the Arab World (1997).
India Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (Publications Division), India – Govt. and Economic Life in Ancient and Medieval Periods. (2017).
Sarah Davis-Secord, Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean (2017).
Šelomō Simonsohn (ed.), The Jews in Sicily: 383-1300. Two good recent sources.
… and that was that.
Move forward a few years…
Phase 2: Velinska (‘believe me… it’s easy’)
Ellie Velinska is a respected member of the ‘central European’ theory group, with a leaning towards the Duc du* Berry and one suspects largely responsible for the elasticity now given that group’s re-definition of ‘central Europe.’ (corr. *sp. ‘de’)
In October of 2016, she picked up Dana’s ‘codex’ idea, first offered (as we saw) on the mailing list in the presence of a leader of that central European theory, Rene Zandbergen. Neglecting to mention Dana as precedent, Velinska’s post adds circumstantial detail to Dana’s proposal, mentioning others only in a final cursory comment: “there are other interpretations of the cube drawing – most often it is perceived as a mineral.”
Nothing is provided that might help readers find and weigh those ‘other interpretations’ and in 2011, so far as I’m aware, there had been none save Dana’s ‘codex’ and my own ‘indigo’. Indigotin is not a mineral. Readers who know of earlier or other views published before 2016 are welcome to leave a comment here; I’m always happy to receive better information.
Keeping readers’ attention ‘on message’ and taking care not to let them be distracted by ‘unhelpful’ information is typical of the theory-war. It is a different thing from offering detailed commentary on some aspect of a six-hundred year old manuscript, and different again from setting out a personal opinion with some, at least of its informing evidence, as proof of honest intent.
The theory-first style relies on assertion and persuasion, of suggesting that ‘ideas’ unsupported by evidence can be accepted on the basis of sounding sensible or plausible. It relies to an extraordinary extent on personalities. The theorists think one should believe a team-member one of ‘the good guys’ and damn the others as ‘bad guys’ (bad, mad, or stupid – it’s all the same).
Velinska convinces because understanding her material takes so very little effort. Her posts offer a short, pleasant, undemanding read, clearly informed by belief in the unmentioned ‘theory’.
Her comments don’t try to engage the reader’s brain, but their emotions – and there’s little so emotionally convincing as conviction, especially when combined with a light-hearted fraternal nudge and grin at the expense of the ‘opposition’ – at all of which Velinska is very good.
For the Eurocentric crew, whose theory has a bloodline which can be traced through d’Imperio directly to Wilfrid Voynich’s tale of 1921, the theory-war is not unlike the weekly football match. Lots of team spirit; furious efforts to keep total possession of the ball; cheers from the crowd, hi-fives at every point scored against the ‘others’ … and not a moment’s thought spared for the ball’s opinion of it all. In this case the ‘ball’ is the manuscript.
Velinska interprets the faint yellow wash on the block’s edges as ‘faded yellow’ and then without further reason given, and without any apparent need to do so, extrapolates that impression into an argument that it was meant for gilded page-edges. As support for this implication that manuscripts were provided with gilded edges by central European binders before 1438, Velinska offers no evidence at all. She includes one composite illustration, formed of undated and unprovenanced details, and one image which is probably a modern reproduction* labelled “Bridgeman Art Library, Italian 15thC”.
*Bridgeman describes itself as “one of the largest archives for reproductions of works of art in the world”.
As ‘evidence’ for an opinion about a medieval manuscript, it is a positive insult to readers’ intelligence.
Having thus asserted (caveats notwithstanding) that the block is a book, and a book with gilded pages, Velinska next explains the oddly-positioned circles as holes for book-clasps, although offering no example of a medieval European manuscript having two clasps, one positioned at top centre and one at its extreme edge. Perhaps Velinska knows one, but if so she should have referenced it, because I should think it quite rare.
Though phased as a tentative suggestion, Velinska’s post implies throughout that it is the only suggestion a sensible person should accept. For the ‘clasps’ idea she says this:
If we imagine for a moment “the blue cube” to be a book these dotted details could represent some kind of book clasps.
Dana did not go that far, and Velinska’s use of the speculative mood serves less as caution to the reader that the idea may be baseless, than as means to deflect criticism or demands for solid evidence. You don’t fall into line because the argument is valid, but because… well, because Ellie’s a nice person and she’s not saying you have to believe her.
One may believe, or not, but in the theory-war it becomes a form of ill-manners to withhold belief pending the presentation of evidence. That is, if the speaker is a member of a major theory-group who is supposed to need not to prove anything which adds another pebble to the mound. On the other hand, the theory-driven see dissenters and non-believers as if members of a lower stratum of society – and in seeing them off, ‘manners’ don’t apply. It’s a war, after all.
One may wonder if Velinska troubled even to establish whether central European bookbinders did, in fact, gild page-edges before 1438. Gilding page-edges was binder’s work, not the scribe’s.
The Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library, Giulia Bologna, says this:
In Northern Italy, above all in Milan, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci extended in no small degree even to this minor art form. Thus, to attain a more exquisite effect, new die stamps styled with leaves and flowers were constantly being designed. They were called aldi after Aldo Manuzio: aldi pieni, vuoti and al tratteggio (solid, blank and broken line). Combined with spirals and volutes they were applied to the empty spaces in geometrical patterns of lines and friezes with striking and stylistically perfect results. Up to the end of the 16th century, bindings with this kind of goldwork were found all over Europe, most of them from Italian prototypes originating in Venice, Milan, Mantua, Turin, Genoa, Ferrara, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Some were quite magnificent, classical but original in composition, endless in variety and harmonious in general appearance. The décors included structural compositions, scrolls and plaques in goldwork, intervening sections with gold dots, lively colour effects obtained with leather appliqué work and lacquer paint. All this gave resplendence to 16th century bindings. It was during this period that decorative work was first used on inside covers and the edges finely gilded.
Da Vinci wasn’t born until 1452 and died in 1519, Bologna is talking about the sixteenth century.
How can Velinska suggest, and invite readers to adopt the idea, that a manuscript made during the first four decades of the fifteenth century, before Leonardo was born – and containing matter demonstrably earlier than our present manuscript’s manufacture – should be believed to include in the ‘root and leaf’ section an image of a book with gilded page-edges?
Easily. It suits the theory.
Failures in rigor do not necessarily mean that the ‘answer’ is wrong: that’s the difference between the pragmatic and critical sciences. It is still possible that Dana and she are right in general; the ‘cube’ might have been meant for a book, but in that case readers are entitled to some informed explanation for the item’s being in the ‘leaf and root’ section, the presence of those ‘knife-blade’ legs on an object in the same register, and the possible linguistic connection between the block and the item directly below it.
Nor is it beyond possibility that the Director of the Milanese Historical Archives and Trivulziana Library is mistaken, and that another source might provide evidence that binders in some part of Europe were gilding pages before 1438. If the question we ask of others’ proposals is, ‘Is that true?’ rather than ‘does it suit my theory’ it is right to be as slow to disbelieve as to believe, and the manuscript’s study is better served.
We cannot accept Velinska’s composite illustration as contradiction of Bologna’s account, because none of its details were provided with date and source. Neither has Velinska considered literal against purely aesthetic elements. Items gilded in a picture may or may not have been gilded in reality. In this case, documentary evidence and/or reference to an extant example was required. (Consideration of e.g. Brit.Lib. Arundel 131 is enough* to show this).
*an impression of its having gilded pages soon dispelled by consulting the Library’s catalogue entry: “Binding: B[ritish] M[useum]/BL in-house. Edges yellow; rebound in 1962.”
I haven’t much time to do this myself on her behalf, but I do note that in 1928, there was published in London and in Boston a two-volume work entitled Gothic & Renaissance Bookbindings Exemplified and Illustrated from the Author’s Collection. Its author was E.Ph. Goldschmidt, the same who eight years later told Richard Salomon that he was “inclined to put the [Voynich] Ms. as far back as the 13th century or, at least, not to deny the possibility of so early an origin”. (Salomon accidentally transposed Goldschmidt’s initials in his letter reporting this to Anne Nill).
I am told that somewhere in those volumes (to which I have no easy access at present), Goldschmidt mentions in passing that edges of a medieval manuscript were, very rarely, gilded. That’s all the information I have, but it leaves the window open a little, and Velinska or those inclined also to hope the ‘block’ meant for a book might care to see if they can find evidence for Velinska’s ‘gilded page edges’. Failing that, the practice of creating a montage or mosaic of undated and unprovenanced details as if the sheer number of inappropriately selected items were sufficient to argue and prove a theoretical argument, is much to be regretted. It seems to have begun with the ‘new crop’ of Eurocentric Voynich bloggers who arrived in 2012, but from whence comes its ‘Warhol’ style, one cannot say.
[pdf] Giulia Bologna, “Gold in Book Binding: the origins of the craft”, The Gold Bulletin, 1982, Vol. 15, (1). pdf accessible through SpringerLInk.
Henry Bohn’s Catalogue of books and printed works (1847) includes reproductions of numerous medieval books of hours described as if they were originals, and which were provided with lovely morocco bindings and gilded edges.
Note – Responding to a comment by Nick Pelling below her post, Velinska said, “in war and Voynich manuscript studies all is fair 🙂”
There’s another proverb, isn’t there – about war’s first casualty?
Phase 3: Jules Janick and Arthur O. Tucker (… no alternative)
In 2006, Nick Pelling published a book called ‘Curse of the Voynich’. If the manuscript has been cursed, it’s with theory-driven individuals and, more recently, this ‘theory-war’ mentality.
Before turning to the way Janick and Tucker treat that detail on folio 102, let’s have a minute’s silence for the first, consummate expounder of a ‘Voynich’ theory, Wilfrid Voynich himself.
In ‘Voynich’ usage, thanks to Wilfrid’s example, ‘theory’ means some idee fixe elaborated, then adorned with oddments of historical fact but never formally argued, devoid of documentary evidence for its tenets, disdainful of debate and presented with an air of authority and a certain internal consistency. Thus Wilfrid:
To summarize, then … we must conclude that, [composed by Roger Bacon], it rested in some monastery in England, where Roger Bacon’s manuscripts remained until the dissolution of the religious houses in the sixteenth century. At that time, together with other treasures from these disbanded libraries, it probably passed into the hands of one of the receivers of this spoil, the Duke of Northumberland. It was very likely one of the manuscripts probably found in this family’s possession by John Dee, who certainly early in his career obtained a collection of Bacon manuscripts. During one of his visits to Prague, Dee undoubtedly presented it to Emperor Rudolph II, from whose possession it passed into the hands of Jacobus de Tepenecz not earlier than 1608.
in which, not one of the assertions made about the manuscript is worth a grain of salt, save its association with Jakub who became -‘de’ or -‘z’ Tepenecz thanks to Rudolf and before 1622.
So now to Janick and Tucker, who make no pretence of objectivity. They say plainly that their aim is neither to study the manuscript, nor to evaluate O’Neill’s speculation, but merely ‘to confirm’ it. Their indifference to the manuscript-as-manuscript (codicology, palaeography etc.) is staggering.
At first, they described the detail on folio 102 as ‘most probably’ boleite. If this is their idea of hard evidence, I’m in the wrong office…)
though later they dropped the ‘probably’:
These authors don’t even try to rationalise the cube’s being in the ‘pharmacy’ section. A central European-ist convert would at least say something like: ‘Mexicans ‘probably’ used boleite in medicine’.
By the time we get to Ch.4 of their book, they’re saying no other explanation is possible:
1. Folio 102r #4 Boleite (Plate 56). This image includes a cubic (isometric) blue mineral resembling a blue bouillon cube. This can only (sic!) be boleite ….. The only sources for large crystals of this quality and quantity are three closely related mines in Baja California Sur, Mexico, …
What quantity? What quality? A specimen measuring 8 millimeters – yes millimetres – square is above average size. I know this because the authors’ ‘Plate 56 was taken from the following advertisement, which they duly footnoted.
So – the authors omitted mention of the fact that (a) no-one seems to have known boleite .. at all … until 1891 and (b) there is no record of any use for the indigo-blue type, and for the clear type none until the end of the nineteenth century,
But it fits the theory!!
There’s a certain beauty to this non-argument in a way.
It is ‘Voynich’ theorising in purest form, unfussed by evidence, by reason, by effort to contextualise details, by any sense that one has to justify assertions made about a medieval manuscript.
Or even that their subject is a medieval manuscript.
Quite beautiful, if you like abstraction.
Postscript – thinking hard as to what might be said for the ‘boleite’ idea, I can only think of one thing. We know that Columbus equated whatever he found in the New World with valuable items imported into Europe from the east. Among Europe’s prized eastern imports was Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli which, when ground into a powder became the pigment Latins called ‘ultramarine’ -‘over the sea’. A wiki article shows boleite in association with malachite and atacamite (a copper-derived mineral created by dessication).However, Europeans also used a different copper-derived mineral which they called azurite, and it was this which McCrone’s tests identified in the manuscript in 2009. Admittedly they were obliged to work within the pre-emptive limits set by the client who commissioned the study, and further by the limits which were inevitable given the destructive methods specified by the same client.McCrone’s letter to the Beinecke library can be downloaded from its site.
Notes 2, 3 & 4: dating and provenancing ‘shapely ladies’
second edition, edited and updated – 15th. Feb. 2019
Anne Nill wrote:
[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century2 … but as he came to the female figures3 in connection with the colours used in the manuscript4 he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!
*’colours’ – he was first shown worn black-and-white negative copies.
“13thC? …..15th? ….
Anne Nill conflates a question about dating manufacture (‘range of colours’), with one about dating content ( ‘shapely ladies’) though it’s true that both together had caused Panofsky’s hesitation.
Eight decades on, the revisionist can consider each item separately and Panofsky’s original judgement appears justified on both counts: manufacture, 15thC; matter gained from older sources. Some of those sources may indeed have been thirteenth-century.
‘Colours’ – The manuscript’s Palette:
Panofsky’s first dating manufacture of the manuscript to ‘not earlier than the fifteenth century’ would eventually become the consensus among persons whose work was in evaluating manuscripts. By the early 1960s, as d’Imperio recorded:
“Helmut Lehmann-Haupt..stated in a letter to Tiltman dated 1 November 1963 that “there was near agreement on the date of the cipher manuscript as around, or a little after, the year 1400”.
Elegant Enigma (1978) p.8*
*note – typographic error in the original. Properly – ‘Hellmut…’. [note added 26 April 2019]
These unnamed specialists, and Panofsky before them, were validated finally in 2011 by the vellum’s radiocarbon range : 1404-1438.
I’ll leave the subject of pigments for a later post, where I’ll compare Panofsky’s statement with Dr. Carter’s descriptive list of the palette (recorded by d’Imperio), and by reference to a scientific study which was included in the Yale facsimile edition. Since the 1930s, and indeed since 1954 – we have developed more precise techniques for analysis and identification.
Comment – Shapely figures
Panofsky was quite right to say that ‘shapely’ women (whom we’ll define by their swelled bellies) would not become a Latin fashion until the fifteenth century, but with more medieval manuscripts known today, we can say his original opinion may not have needed second-thoughts on this account, for research into the imagery in Spanish-and-Jewish manuscripts indicates that the form does occur there earlier, though interestingly only to represent metaphorical or allegorical ‘bodies’. The closest comparison found so far – since we must take both stylistics and apparent subject into account – is the ‘Gemini’ in MS Sassoon 823 (now: UPenn MS LJS 057). The remarkably close similarity suggests a need to revise much of what has been generally assumed about the Voynich ‘ladies’.
As our header shows, the ‘swelled belly’ emerged as an effort to imitate drawings in the first (pre-Ulugh Beg) illustrations found in copies of al-Sufi’s Book of the Constellations. Those images in turn had reflected the traditions of pre-Islamic peoples, including but not limited to, those of the Greeks and Romans. The rounded belly was most characteristic of an Indo-Persian style and we must consider that the works of al-Biruni may have had some part to play in first formulation of the drawings illustrating al-Sufi’s tenth-century composition.
That remains to be seen. However, the header for this post illustrates the progression of the style; the left panel shows a detail from the ‘Gemini’ in an eleventh-century Iraqi copy of al-Sufi’s text; the centre shows the Gemini from MS Sassoon 823, whose content is a compilation of astronomical works, out together in 1361 in Catalonia, and the third panel is from another compilation, in a manuscript made (as we know) during the early decades of the fifteenth century.
The fourteenth-century Catalonian-Jewish figure has more in common with the Voynich manuscript’s unclothed figures than just the quirk which sees many of the bellies given a slightly-angular form.
They also have in common their curiously-formed ankles, flat feet and boneless-looking arms – none of which elements appear in extant Islamic copies of al-Sufi’s constellation-illustrations, and none of which mars the later, more literal, fifteenth century ‘shapely women’ of Latin (i.e. western Christian) art.
There are differences evident, too. A majority of the Voynich figures have heads disproportionately large, as the Catalonian figure does not. More importantly (because even rarer ) many are drawn with overly large thighs in combination with bone-thin shanks, something shown most clearly in the Voynich ‘bathy-‘ sub-section, and which again is present neither in the Catalonian figure, nor in any remaining copies of al-Sufi’s work of which I’m aware.
That stylistic habit is not absolutely unknown, though since it speaks more to the route by which the material had reached the west than our present subject, I leave it aside.
On the matter of proportions, which topic I’d brought forward quite early for its significance, the general indifference saw it ignored at that time, but more recently we have had a lucid ‘revisionist’ post on the subject by Koen Gheuens, which I recommend:
the chief point to be taken from this is that Panofsky’s judgement of ‘southern and Jewish’ content again finds support in the style of that drawing in a manuscript predating the Voynich manuscript’s manufacture by at least forty years, and perhaps as much as sixty.
The possibility that its precedents could date from as early as the the reign of Alfonso X (1254-1282) relies on the context in which the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ occurs, for even in Sassoon 823 its style of drawing stands apart. To clarify, I rely on a paper by Fischer, Langermann and Kunitzsch, describing in detail the sections comprising the compilation of Sassoon 823/LJS 057. The optional Preface clarifies another ‘ground hog day’ issue but skipping it will not lose anything from the main topic.
Optional preface:History of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in Voynich studies.
I came across a notice of sale and acquisition for MS Sassoon 823 in 2011 in the course of my principal (non-Voynich-related) research.
Its description contained a greater-than-usual number of points in common with the Voynich manuscript – though at that time I was still the only person in the second mailing list to hold that Beinecke MS 408 was also a compilation from several earlier sources. (Today, I daresay, most would claim it general knowledge, and some would assert having known it all along. Perhaps, if so, they might have lent a word of support at the time.) Hunting more details of the manuscript, I had only an abstract of the article by Fischer et.al. when I posted a note (in my old blogger blog, Findings) on Nov. 21st., 2011, listing the features I considered it had in common with the Voynich manuscript. (At the time, a couple of the ‘German’ theorists were disputing use of the term ‘vellum’ and claiming the material could just as easily be described as German parchment.. which isn’t so, but they’ve come right on that matter since.)
A codex – probably fourteenth century – from the Iberian peninsula or thereabouts (Ceuta?) contains illustrations with human figures drawn short, and with distended bellies. One of these illustrations (for Gemini) is shown on p.288 of the article cited below. That same article, written in 1988, provides the few details about the ms…
Article: Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch and Y. Tzvi Langermann, “The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS. Sassoon 823” The Jewish Quarterly Review , New Series, Vol. 78, No. 3/4 (Jan. – Apr., 1988), pp. 253-292
which says that the ms in question is:
*Inscribed in an ‘early’ Spanish hand.
*A florilegium – i.e. a collection of extracts.
*Vellum (?) rather than parchment.
*Total number of pages is greater than the Vms… but
*quires are also 8 pages each.
There is also apparently a book [which could be an intro. plus facsimile, at 292 pages]: Karl Adolf Franz Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Yitzhak Tzvi Langermann, The Hebrew astronomical codex ms. Sassoon 823, Center for advanced Judaic studies, University of Pennsylvania, (1994) – 292 pages.
As you’ll see, some of those details were mistaken: the provenance is now established as Catalonia and the library presently holding it is clear about the date: 1361.
The next year, still unable to get hold of a copy of the larger study, and with the manuscript not (yet) online, I put out the word again – through my still-fairly-new wordpress blog, voynichimagery (‘Curiosities’, Friday, Nov.2nd., 2012)
Still no response from any of the thousand or so who read that post.
By 2013, I was about to give it up, but because I had not found anywhere a drawing so like in both form and style to the Voynich ‘ladies’ as the Sassoon manuscript’s ‘Gemini’, I followed that manuscript’s progress after its purchase by the University of Pennyslvania (where it would be re-classified Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, MS 057).
By 2013 I was also frustrated that no other Voynich researcher had yet investigated exactly where and when ‘swelled belly’ figures begin appearing in Europe’s Latin (western Christian) art, so I set out to investigate both topics in parallel and in earnest. I acquired a photocopy of Sassoon 823/LJS 057… which was later digitised by UPenn.
Some of my research and results I shared in the context of posts about Beinecke MS 408, published at voynichimagery through 2013-2014. Two, for example, are:
D.N. O’Donovan, ‘The ‘beastly’ Lombardy Herbal Pt1 – female forms’ (22nd July 2013); and then (e.g.)
__________________, ‘ Talking about art and codicology’, ( 26th October 2014).
I referenced the paper of 1988 which I’d first read in 2011 – and from which I quote again further below.
Karl A. F. Fischer, Paul Kunitzsch, Tzvi Langermann, ‘The Hebrew Astronomical Codex MS Sassoon 823’, The Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXVIII, Nos. 3-4 (January-April, 1988) 253-292.
The most important discovery, in my opinion, was that the Sassoon ‘Gemini’ served as support not only for Panofsky’s location and character for the Voynich manuscript, but also for my own conclusions (published as early as 2011) that it is not only the ‘ladies’ in the calendar’s tiers, but all of them (and associated males) which were intended for celestial/immaterial ‘bodies’/souls. To some extent, Nick Pelling (among others?) had sensed something of this in calling the figures “nymphs” – but it was also understood or intuited as early as 1921, by Professor Romaine Newbold, albeit he had interpreted that idea within the terms of late-classical neoPlatonist philosophy, rather than those of pragmatic astronomies. (Some years later, Koen Gheuens would do something of the same, but in terms of the Latin mainstream and its standard texts: For the record, my own view is that we are seeing an older, more pragmatic tradition whose closest ‘cousins’ in the western Mediterranean are those of the navigator and chart-maker, whose terrestrial and celestial grids are constantly superimposed on one another. However…
Having followed the trail of Sassoon 823 after its sale, corresponded with the new owner, written about it in posts (which were then still online and with the blog’s ranking, highly likely to turn up on any search), I was disappointed to see that Darren Worley failed to refer to the precedent when, in 2017, he left a comment at Stephen Bax’ site announcing the existence of Sassoon 823/LJS 057 in a way suggesting it a newly idea within the study.
At that time I had a manuscript – a set of twelve essays – in the last stages of preparation for publication at that time; and since academic editors do prefer no doubt should exist about the originality of work they have commissioned, I asked Darren to acknowledge the precedent for form’s sake. He did not. No-one wants to be put in the position of being asked, in effect, why if their work is original, the same material is now seen everywhere (including voynich.nu and wikipedia) with not a mention of one’s own name as the first to have contributed the research, conclusions or insight.
Given that this relatively minor incident was only one of the great many similar – and worse instances that I’d had to deal with over almost a decade, I had no option but to stop sharing original material online, and to close voynichimagery from the public – which I did soon after. The issue has nothing to do with money, or copyright; it has to do with transparency and the honest mapping of the subject’s development over time. (see the ‘About’ page)
On a brighter note, Worley’s comment itself had value. I recommend it for his observation about the quire signatures which I have not seen made before.
The TEXTS IN MS SASSOON 823 AND THEIR PICTURES: Bar Hiyya, al-Sufi and anonymous. NON-LATIN LINEAGE.
Sassoon 823/LJS 057 was made almost forty years earlier than the posited ‘1400’, and fully half a century before the Voynich manuscript was made.
Whether Panofsky was right or not in first attributing the content in Beinecke MS 408 to the thirteenth century, its ‘swelled-belly’ figures offer no objection to a ‘southern and Jewish’ character ‘with Arabic influences’ – for that is precisely how the manuscript is described which offers our closest-known comparison for the unclothed Voynich ‘ladies’.
Of the astronomical drawings in Sassoon 823, Fisher et.al. comment:
… the figures found in the Sassoon manuscript cannot have been copied from a manuscript of the Sufi latinus corpus, and equally not from an Islamic celestial globe. The only remaining possibility is that they were selected and copied from an Arabic manuscript of al-Sufi’s treatise.”
The text accompanying the Gemini figure (p.225) comes from an unnamed source, and the ‘Gemini’ image itself is not drawn in a way closely akin to any other, even in that manuscript.
The content in pages 195-228 is described altogether as “Astronomical Tables by Abraham bar Hiyya and others” and In bold letters at the top of page 195 is written: “From here onwards, from the Jerusalem Tables of the Nasi’ R. Hiyya the Spaniard, of blessed memory”
Kunitzsch adding his comment:
‘I know of no medieval astronomer by that name; however, the Nasi’ R. Abraham bar Hiyya is, of course, very well known, and in fact the tables in this entry up to page 214 are indeed his tables. On the other hand, I know of no other reference to Bar Hiyya’s tables as the “Jerusalem Tables.” …
The ‘Gemini’ image (p.225) belongs to the additional, anonymous, material occupying pp. 215-28 which “deals mainly with astrology. Some of these tables are found in at least two other manuscripts which contain Bar Hiyya’s tables: Chicago, Newberry Library Or. 101, and Vatican Heb. 393. Other items are unique to our manuscript…
The ‘Gemini’ image may then have been brought into the Sassoon compendium with its anonymous(?) tables, not designed by Bar Hiyya but found with his in at least two other manuscripts. What is not known is how early the sources were joined – nor where – though ultimately the ‘Gemini’ (which we accept as deriving from an Arabic manuscript copy of al-Sufi’s ‘Book of the Constellations’ ) has to derive from the versions made before the time of Ulugh Beg, after which Gemini is differently represented.
Bar Hiyya was known to the Latins as Abraham Judeus, and was born three generations after al-Sufi’s death. (Al-Sufi 903-986; Bar Hiyya 1065—1136 AD).
Those manuscripts cited as containing the same tables, together with Bar Hiyya’s are not both presently accessible online, and Vatican Ebr.393 (1497 AD) though digitised contains contains no constellation drawings. (Catalogue entry here.) The Newberry Library informs me that the article by Fischer et.al. is mistaken. They have no ‘MS Or.101’, but they do have Heb.MS 2, whose content appears to be as described in that article. There are no constellation drawings in this copy. At right, a reduced copy of one of the images very kindly sent me by the library.
Sidenote – ‘Jerusalem’. David King demonstrated that in al-Andalus some at least had knowledge of Jerusalem latitudes; an astrolabe dated c.1300 has all its inscriptions save one in Arabic, the exception transliterating into Hebrew script the Arabic ” لعرض بیت المقدس لب li-ʿarḍ Bayti ‘l-Maqdis lām bā’” – “for the latitude of Jerusalem, 32°”.
Abu Zayed & King & Schmidl, “From a heavenly Arabic poem to an enigmatic Judaeo-Arabic astrolabe” (2011), crediting the Khalili Collection, London for the image.
David A. King, ‘Astronomy in medieval Jerusalem’ (Pt.2), revised and shortened 2018, available through academia.edu
On Stephen Bax’ site (now in other hands) you will find various comments referring to Spain and to Spanish manuscripts, the work (chiefly by Darren Worley and Marco Ponzi) reviving and expanding the long-neglected opinion of Panofsky, and later variation in Fr.Theodore Petersen’s work.
Checking the files of Reeds’ mailing list is always worthwhile; and I’d also suggest searching Nick Pelling’s long-running blog, ciphermysteries. Running a search there before pursuing a ‘new line’ too far can often save you much time and effort – because even if Pelling has not looked at the subject himself, he may well mention that another researcher did.
A revisionist will want to revise past ideas and efforts, but it is always as well to begin by knowing what those were.
With regard to the ‘shapely ladies’ in Beinecke MS 408, I should mention that the opinion of Fischer et. al. appears to preclude any close connection between them and the ‘2312 virgins’ which appear in a 9thC Byzantine diagram within Vat.Lat. gr. 1291.[Vatican City, Lateran Palace collection, Greek ms 1291]. The comparison has often – in fact continually – been re-produced since 2001 though without any effort to produce a formal argument, so far as I can discover. It would appear to have been introduced to the study by Dana Scott in a post to Reeds’ mailing list (Mon. 12th. Feb. 2001), because ten days later (Thurs, 22nd. Feb 2001) Adam McLean refers to the diagram as if only recently mentioned. The point remains a little uncertain because link to the image which Dana attached and labelled ‘Ptolemy’ no longer works.
an overlooked typo corrected, with apologies to readers, on Nov.23rd., 2019.
Note: Swelled bellies in fourteenth century Bohemia.
Probably irrelevant to Beinecke MS 408, I include this for the Voynicheros fascinated by Rudolf and his world.
The same essay continues:
To which globe are the (hemisphere) illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript most closely related? The answer is probably the globe of the King of Bohemia, Wenceslaus II (or III ?), which is now kept in Bernkastel-Kues and was first described by Hartmann.
The Spanish origin of the star catalogue in Sassoon 823 has already been established in Part I of this article (i.e. by Fischer, Kunitzsch and Langermann), .
Since the star illustrations in the Sassoon manuscript are similar to both Vienna codex 5318[not digitised] which is considered to belong to the same family as Catania 87 [not found online] and the two hemispheres on pp. 112-13 of Vienna Codex 5415 [see Warburg database], and since both of these Latin manuscripts now located at Vienna originate from Prague, one ought to consider the possibility of Spanish influence on the manuscripts executed at Prague.
In the middle ages there were relations between the royal courts at Prague and Castile. The father of the present writer conducted research in Spanish archives before the civil war in that country which were destroyed in that conflict. He found there that the first known astronomer in Prague was sent as a “gift” by King Alfonso of Castille to Premysl Ottakar II King of Bohemia. … Previous scholars have frequently noted that Prague was the place of origin of many astronomical atlases.
(Premysl Ottokar II was King of Bohemia 1253 -1278; – D)
The Bohemian line of development shows an absence of some characteristics shared by the Voynich figures and those in Sassoon 823. Nor does the Voynich calendar show Gemini in this form But for the ‘ladies’ in the Vms’ bathy-section and for some of the surrounding figures in the calendar, we may suggest as one explanation, common emergence from that earlier, non-Latin al-Sufi textual tradition current in Spain, the Bohemian works having been gained by second-hand exposure to them. Of three examples illustrated by Fischer in another paper, it is only that dated c.1350 which distinguishes the female figure by small, high breasts and none shows similar style for the limbs and hair as we see in the Sassoon manuscript.
Another section Sassoon 823 (pp. 25-29) contains extracts from Abraham Ibn Ezra’s astrological works – interesting in view of our earlier reference to the Voynich calendar’s month-names and their orthography.
Ibn Ezra, who also translated Ibn al-Muthanna’s commentary on the tables of al-Khwarizmi, is recorded – in the Parma version – as saying “The tables in the Almagest are useless”
above quoted from p.255 of Fisher et.al., ‘Hebrew Astronomical Codex….’
and just to show that the eastern ‘swelled belly’ was often difficult for Latins to interpret, here’s what was made of it c.1300 by a draughtsman in Paris: the belly becomes a rib-cage, twisted sideways.
Few heeded the distinction between dates of composition and those of manufacture:
The point is that this distinction between dates for manufacture and for content, when considered in concert with other items of evidence, (some of which have already been mentioned in these posts) obliges us to take seriously the possibility that our manuscript is a fifteenth-century copy of material gained from sources which may date to the thirteenth century – or earlier.
This is something which had been suggested even while the cryptanalysts were involved, half a century ago. In 1969 Tiltman seems to attribute to both Panofsky and the keeper of manuscripts his saying:
… the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.
Quotation above from [pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘(1968).
Other than John Tiltman, the record of d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma shows that the cryptanalysts around William Friedman evince a lack of regard for opinions of specialists in their own subjects. Friedman is recorded complaining of the ‘naivety’ of university men and his behaviour towards Newbold and towards Panofsky reinforces this impression.
That curious indifference may be due partly to the diversity of those opinions, partly to individual bias, and in the case of Erwin Panofsky partly his uncooperative response in 1954, but more than those – so it appears to me – was the dichotomy presented by those opinions versus the cryptanalysts’ confidence that they had a role, and an important role, to play in the manuscript’s study.
Had they accepted the opinion of early fifteenth century date, they would have had to abandon their fixed belief that the written part of the text was ciphertext – one so resistant to their cryptological attacks that they must presume it the invention of a highly sophisticated Latin, one having access to techniques not attested until the … late fifteenth century… early sixteenth century… late sixteenth century… early seventeenth century…
Marcus Marci’s reporting the Rudolf-rumour had one clear benefit for this study. It set a definite limit on such rovings. Rudolf’s death occured in 1621.
Today, the ‘cipher-or-language… or other’ question remains unresolved, but the date for manufacture is set within narrow limits and obliges us to date the content, therefore, before that period 1404-1438.
And the content, like the ‘shapely ladies’ may derive from sources considerably earlier – as two of those specialists had pointed out.
In sum: Panofsky dated the pigments – and hence manufacture – in the fifteenth century. He was right. By reference to the ‘swelled belly’ figures, Panofsky felt his initial view of the content as “early… perhaps as early as the thirteenth century” could not be correct, and since he had no knowledge of that custom in art of the western Mediterranean before the fifteenth century, so he felt he must shift the date for content to co-incide with than of manufacture: 15thC. Given the resources available today, we are able to say he was right about a pre=fifteenth-century date for composition,* since the ‘Gemini’ in Sassoon 823 is in a manuscript dated 1361, and made as he said by Jews of ‘Spain or somewhere southern’.
*the ‘pre=‘ dropped out during editing. Replaced today (15th Feb. 2019) with apologies to readers.
Moreover, that image occurs in a manuscript whose matter dates to a much earlier period and some of which is, in fact, dated to the thirteenth century and the time of Alfonzo X, a court in which (again as Panofsky said) you find influence from Islamic art in Jewish – and in Christian – art.