O’Donovan notes #8: Knife & …

c.2300 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

“Knife and ….”

If you automatically added ‘fork’ to complete that phrase, you’ve just given an example of why we can’t rely on what seems obvious today when trying to read images in this manuscript.

A capacity for logic and clear thinking are helpful, but can operate only on what a person already knows, or at least what a person believes they know.

To understand problematic drawings made not less than six centuries ago means not only ‘learning so much stuff’ (as one of my student-apprentices once complained) but unlearning things.

You’d have to ‘unlearn’ that automatic association between knives and forks for example. Here’s why:

The moment that provided initial spark of fork’s popularity in central Europe happened with the marriage of French King Henry II and Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici [in 1547] .. the majority of Europe embraced the fork only by 18th century and the United States only after the end of American Revolution and early 19th century. (edited from web article ‘History of Forks‘)

There are many things you’ll find assumed about the medieval world in past and present-day Voynich narratives which seem plausible only because the reader shares a writer’s own time and environment. Many have to be un-learned, or at least deliberately set aside while working on this manuscript’s drawings.

One false impression which must be set aside, though it is deep-rooted in the history of this manuscript’s study, is that when the material in the manuscript was brought together, medieval western Europe was a centre of learning and civilization, high on the global scale, and an important actor in world-politics.

It isn’t so. In geographic and in intellectual terms, the centre of the world during the 10th-15th centuries was hither Asia, initially the region around Khorasan, with Baghdad a close second in its heyday.

Throughout those centuries, western Europe was considered – and was by comparison with the eastern centres – a ‘barbarian’ region on the extreme western margins of the world, far behind the civilized world in its manners, mentality, and scientific learning.

Nor did the world east of the Arabian shield sit passively waiting to be ‘discovered’ by Portuguese as western histories used to imply.

That region was a vibrant and active world with well-developed lines of cultural and commercial interactions, some of which had developed and been maintained for as much as four millennia* before the first European ships arrived.

*I’m thinking here of the trade in lapis lazuli from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia and then to Egypt.

What had reached medieval Europe from those eastern regions before the end of the fifteenth century was an almost negligible part of such exchange, whether one considers intellectual or material treasures.

I’m not repeating these things to offend any European or to diminish their pride in their own country’s history and accomplishments but to point out that ideas which permeated nineteenth-century histories of Europe and which define the way the Voynich manuscript’s contents were imagined by Wilfrid, by the Friedmans and thus also by d’Imperio are out of step with what is known of the period now, yet the traditionalists’ attitudes and the narratives constructed in that mould still maintain ideas no longer accepted in history or other disciplines today.

I’m saying that to rightly understand the drawings which have been preserved for us in Beinecke MS 408, a wider, more up to date, and more objective perspective is needed.

Since our next example from the manuscript will refer to astronomical matter, let me illustrate the discrepancy between past and present ideas by quoting a little from a paper by David A. King. a scholar at the University of Frankfurt and an eminent specialist in the history of astronomy in the Arabic-speaking medieval world and on the impact of that astronomical learning on other regions.

The problem that specialists in the history of Islamic astronomy confront is that the modern Western world is under the impression that Islamic astronomy is somehow represented by the 5% of it that became known in medieval Europe… *

David A.King, ‘Spherical astrolabes in circulation: From Baghdad to Toledo and to Tunis & Istanbul’ (pre-print, 2018 version).

*emphasis – present author

Five percent.

Just think about that for a minute.

Ninety-five percent of what was available to astronomers in the Arabic-speaking world never so much as entered the horizons of Latins’ formal scholarship.

……

In treating the diagram from folio 85r, we were dealing with what is arguably the most legible of the Voynich drawings in terms of Latin European conventions in art, yet even there we saw some evidence of affect from non-Latin matter: in the costume given the figure for East; in the four banners, and in the drawing’s being presented ‘south-up’.

The diagram on folio 67v-1 also shows us two layers to its content, one more and one less intelligible in terms of medieval Latins’ graphic language. As we’ll see in the next post, the two elements are not so neatly fused in that drawing as they are in our first example but one set of information has been added to (or if you like, imposed on) the other,* and for much of the astronomical information it conveys, I must cite non-Latin sources, finding no full explanation for it in any western manuscript made before 1440 AD.

*I think this probably occurred before the fifteenth-century copy was made, but allow for the possibility that further tests on the manuscript may one day prove that layer a late addition.

Here, of course, we must allow for the relatively small proportion of manuscripts which have survived and the fact that while manuscripts are records of what was known, not all forms of knowledge were recorded in that way. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the drawing’s explanation must refer other sources, though I’ll illustrate the discussion using images more easily understood by my readers.

The analysis will begin with a ‘compare-and-contrast’ study of the two diagrams: i.e. that on folio 85r, and on folio 67v-1.

Another paragraph from King’s paper allows us to hope that some manuscript might exist still whose drawings are akin to some in Beinecke MS 408.

… the sources which offer the most challenge to future historians are housed in the rich libraries of Turkey and Iran, mainly catalogued only recently. Yet even in various Western libraries where the astronomical manuscripts are properly catalogued, briefly listed in out-dated catalogues, or not catalogued at all, important discoveries can still be made. Witness the materials in Arabic, Hebrew, and Turkish mentioned later in this paper..

So, it is still possible that among such still-unstudied manuscripts we may one day discover closer comparisons for the Voynich drawings than have been found to date. In the meantime, however, while we can still analyse the drawings from textual sources we cannot yet offer any close comparison from Latin sources for the drawings themselves – just as we still have no close comparison for the set of Voynich glyphs.

It is particularly regrettable that the study of Beinecke MS 408 continues to be hampered by a maintenance, in traditionalist narratives and the many imaginative Voynich-related narratives sprung from them, of a type of Eurocentric bias* so narrow that it occurs in little modern scholarship today. It persists because it ran deep in this study’s founding fathers – Wilfrid Voynich, Professor Newbold, and the Friedmans- and from their ideas the traditionalist narrative still depends.

*in fact a bias so extreme that it constantly defined medieval ‘Europe’ as if comprised of England, Germany and France, with a mere nod to Italy before Giotto.

It is another habit to be un-learned if the study of Beinecke MS 408’s drawings is to see meaningful progress.

Even if one thinks (as I do) that the quires were probably inscribed in western (‘Latin’-) Europe or under such auspices, the fact is that by the mid-fourteenth century, the matter now in this manuscript could have come into the west from almost anywhere yet still never have been known to those who created the formal texts by which Europe’s intellectual history is typically mapped.

The old idea was that no foreign matter came into Europe except it was fetched by some single European (usually imagined male) whose name was known to history; that the matter in the Voynich manuscript must have a single European ‘author’ (again usually imagined male). Though these ideas combined constituted an idée fixe for most of the period after 1912, they too must be un-learned, along with other persistent if tacit assumptions – such as that none save a European could read Latin; that Jews spoke no language but Hebrew and that in tracing “Europe’s intellectual history” (a phrase d’Imperio uses) none save Germans, French, English and Italians need be considered.

How antiquated these ideas are – consciously held or not – is neatly illustrated by another passage from the same paper. King here refers to astronomer who lived in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth century – too late to have contributed to the matter in Beinecke MS 408 – but the example is still illuminating as a myth-buster:

Mūsà Jālīnūs [was] a remarkable Jewish medic and astronomer with access to the court of Sultan Bāyazīt II (reg. 1481-1512) in the recently established Ottoman capital of Istanbul. He also had a connection to the military.

Mūsà’s principal written works have only been investigated during the past 10 years.

He is now known as the author of various sophisticated treatises on astronomy and medicine, as well as philosophy. He was a gifted linguist, writing in Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish, and translating from Latin into Arabic and from Arabic into Hebrew. His interest in practical devices was not limited to astronomical instruments for it extended to mechanical devices and even robotics. He visited Venice and Padua between 1497 and 1502 and must be considered as a possible vehicle in the transmission of certain innovative ideas in Islamic theoretical astronomy to Renaissance Europe.

Compare that with the view of the Jews implicit in Mary d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma and a continuing notion that to invoke ideas about Kabbalah one must imagine that some Latin male named in the historical record as mediator and cleanser of ‘foreign’ knowledge for a Latin audience. In this case, the role is typically imagined filled by poor Ramon Llull.

That passage just quoted shows clearly enough, I think, that such assumptions of a ‘white-walled Europe’ in which only western Christians could read books written in Latin, and no external knowledge entered Europe except some individual Latin had been to fetch it or, alternatively, had served as ‘gate-keeper’ are ideas which, though commonplace in Friedmans’ day, are no longer maintained in serious historical studies – though still habitual in Voynich writings of the traditionalist type.

The reality of the wider medieval world, and even just of the Mediterranean world, is of multi-lingual and multi-disciplinary learning able to pass fairly easily along land and sea-routes, and sometimes even to the uttermost fringes of the world – as Europe then was. It needed no Latin’s coming to fetch the matter, nor any Latin ‘gatekeeper’ to permit or deny its entry. What was needed was a lessening of that morbid superstition, rife in Europe, that association with ‘foreigners’ brought some sort of contamination – an idea which there long-predated the advent of plague.

Like everyone else, I began by supposing that the constantly-repeated scheme of the traditional ‘Voynich story’ must have developed in the way scholarship normally does, from a basis of some solid foundational studies. By the time I’d looked into twenty of the manuscript’s drawings, I could not avoid acknowledging the wide disparity between the evidence of the primary document and that traditional narrative. Seeking out those ‘foundational studies’ I then found them without substance – an undocumented sales pitch by Wilfrid Voynich; a scrap of third-hand rumour (still without any substance to it), and the efforts of cryptographers guided by the Friedmans, whose inclinations and biases have been considered by previous posts to this blog.

*Posts Nos. 6-27.

Today I think that the Voynich manuscript is a more valuable historical document than those early theorists could have appreciated, and more valuable than can be imagined even tofay by a person basing their theoretical schemes on the same old Eurocentric and class-obsessed scheme.

The drawings in Beinecke MS408 embody information which was rare in Europe, some of it very rare even in the seventeenth century as I’ll demonstrate in a later post.

The question of how the material did reach Europe to be copied (as we currently think) in the early fifteenth century is an altogether different question.

When, where and how its written text was added is also, thankfully, not within our remit.

That the manuscript, overall, is no reflection of what was being taught in medieval western universities is evident – at the very least by a century’s failure to find valid parallels for it – but against this, the few drawings which do exhibit a Latin character have found occasional echoes – as for example the form given Constantinople-Pera in the Voynich map, or those ‘deformed lobsters’ earlier mentioned ( see last quarter of Note #7 Pt 1).

When both style of drawing and the information conveyed find no parallel in any extant western work, I think it is surely better to admit that fact, than to create and elaborate still more baseless storylines from the old Eurocentric vision.

Better to admit that the drawings are ‘strange, even foreign-looking’ as d’Imperio almost did, than to opt for guesswork and speculation or, by imposing facile and fairly arbitrary ‘matches’ on the drawings, to try adding support to that old narrative. In the end, surely, it must the material evidence and the testimony of the primary document which decides our opinions.

So let’s pay careful attention to what it has to say.

First – the slow, careful scan, setting the image firmly in memory and missing nothing. An analytical study should include every detail. It’s enough to notice exactly what’s there on the page – no need to have a mind busy imagining, speculating or leaping onto some particular detail. Just memorise.

Folio 67v-1

folio 67v-1

all images from the manuscript are from the Beinecke Library website copyright Yale University.