Skies above Pt 6a: Adding and removing layers

Header.  details from an Apulian terracotta, showing ten-rayed star; seven-rayed ‘star-flowers’, sun of night as fire-basket; clothed female figures.  (Metropolitan Museum of Art,. Dated third quarter of the 4thC BC;  inset – detail from an Attic krater, black figure ware.  Rape of Cassandra by Aias (Ajax) before the image of Athena.  (Met. Museum of Art, New York. Dated 6thC BC).

Two previous:

 

ALREADY, by this stage, a possible explanation had presented itself for the apparently deliberate avoidance of representing living things too realistically/literally.  The logs show that after noting a second exception (on f.116v)  I moved on to two more questions after putting notes in the margin to remind myself where to pick up later this matter of the  ‘boneless’ ladies** 

** vis: “Job 31:22.   Ezekiel 27:19; 29:6; 40:5-8; 41:8, 16-19.”

The two subsequent questions were 1. “Why female? why unclothed?” and 2. ‘why baskets? – March diagram. Significance?’. 

In fact I treated the second matter first, but will reverse the order here.  

 

“Why female? Why unclothed?”

Initial jottings:   ok. in Egypt.  Earlier Gk examples but in Mediterranean chiefly from c.2ndC BC. vide Pompeii; North Africa… Syria;  Black Sea, northern India and further). Western revival late – Renaissance latter half 15thC [cf. Panofsky and keeper of mss]. Female still  later.  Venice-Florence. .  

It was evident to me that the ladies’  first enunciation could not have occurred in an environment that was monotheist, aniconic or anti-iconic, nor within Latin Europe until a couple of generations later than the Voynich manuscript had been made.

It was equally clear that at some later stage they had been affected by such an environment. Logically, this indicated an impact during the period of transmission from when depiction of unclothed females might be of the generic sort (in the Mediterranean c. 2nd C BC – 5thC AD) to Europe where, early in the fifteenth-century, the present manuscript is thought to have been made but where depiction of unclothed female forms was still relatively rare and of ‘shapely’ ladies very rare indeed. Just as Panofsky observed in 1932. 

It not difficult to imagine a context in which an astronomical diagram of this type might have been first enunciated in medieval Latin Europe. But  I should think that imagination would be its only support.

So by lifting aside the intervening accretions (that is to say, the chronological strata), the figures in the month-diagrams can be seen again as shapely ladies with arms and shoulders whole, though without the still-later overlays of dress and heavy paint which a number of the deformed bodies now bear.

That the Voynich ‘ladies’ were originally unclothed, and their covering due to a relatively late sequence of additions is quite clear, the stages are exemplified below by details on folio 71v-ii.

In the first stage some additional lines were drawn,  details of breast and groin omitted or erased, and the body covered by a light wash. (below, left)

Heavier pigment was then applied, unevenly and not in all diagrams nor in every case.  The example (below, right) is again from f. 71v-ii. 

It seems to me that this heavier pigment which is consistently applied for the central emblems, was applied to the ladies as much in an effort to cover up their boneless limbs and ‘normalise’ the body as it was to render them more modest. 

 (The head wear is not peculiar to the western Mediterranean,  nor to the medieval centuries). 

But what this must imply is that the copy upon which those ‘improvers’ worked already showed the ladies with those boneless limbs – and so that the work had only recently entered their own horizons if the work was indeed done within western Europe.  In Latin Europe the usual practice was to eliminate or ‘correct’ images inconsistent with Latin customs or theology, and within a short time – an act of translation as the copies were made. 

In some few other folios we do see efforts at improvement/translation of the drawings per se, but it is noticeable that when such changes are very marked – as where a ruler was taken up to draw elements in the ‘bathy-‘ section – that hand does not remain present long.  The implication in that case, and where such details occur in other sections of this manuscript, is that the aim was to reproduce with near-facsimile exactitude, matter gained from one or more exemplars.  And then these drawings were ‘improved’ as if now under other guidance. The first wanted a precisely copied work; the other (whose effect is seen only in these month-diagrams) wanted something less awkward-looking.

Overall, I can only conclude that our present copy can be no original composition, nor any traditional product of medieval Latin culture.

Other items to be considered in connection with these figures (as I noted in the log) are that:

  1. the star-flowers may have seven points;
  2. a faint trace of ‘roses’ appears even in that altered figure from the ‘light April’ diagram. 
  3. ( certain of the baskets are drawn with a side-seam and in the detail from f. 71v shown above left, the basket might have two side-seams. A person doesn’t imagine such structural elements for an object if every object of that type they’ve ever seen lacks them.  So here the inclusion of a seam in the drawing is another technical detail, and another limiting factor, and all the more if these ‘baskets’ really came waist high: for ancient and medieval peoples say about 2’5″ (c. 62-63 cm).  [As it happened, that detail proved important]. 

A further question: Was the star itself identified only with the centre of these flower-like forms? To take the example of the aster, was it identified only with the disk flowers –  while the ray-flowers (‘petals’) were supposed… rays (Lat. radii)?  Implications for Q.20?

 

Why ladies?

The question  arises because, if the material had been transmitted through a community averse to realistic depiction of living things, surely they might have just omitted the ladies altogether, at very least from the month-diagrams. On the other hand, if their way had been informed by an idea that it was only a realistic or ‘workable’ likeness which was prohibited then the form itself and not the subject-matter was the focus of that prohibition.  In other words, their view was not that ‘you shall not make an  image in the likeness of any thing’ but ‘you shall not make an image as the likeness of any living thing’. So long as it did not actually imitate a living thing, you could make, or keep as many images as you liked.  This is also an attitude that speaks to an earlier time, when it was not uncommon to believe that a physical image and a living thing, both, had their animation or soul from the stars.  The soul was the star-soul, and it was drawn down into a perfected body – hence at birth.  Death saw that soul return to whence it came.  Something of this ancient belief remains today in the location imagined for a heaven of souls.  But there isn’t time to explain so much here, except to say that within the Mediterranean this idea was at least as old as the pyramids in Egypt.

That the figures weren’t omitted, but merely distorted might also, or alternatively, imply that the information was perceived as so important that only superficial changes were permitted.  Supposing them simply astronomical types in some sense, however, isn’t enough.  We have the model provided by some Hebrew- and Arabic-inscribed astrolabes to prove  that astronomical types could well be omitted without altering content.  But if each represented a personality (cf the Jerusalem Astrology, Sortes Sangalensis,  or the late ‘angels of the day’ in Agrippa) then they might be irreplaceable.  Or if each also was the token of a place and important for that reason when the original had been made.   But then why associate the stars predominantly with ‘ladies’?   One obvious possibility is that link of star-and place; with the tyche or other ‘patron’ – and some of the ladies in the month-diagrams and the bathy- section do wear battlemented crowns – technically ‘mural crowns’.  (This last was a matter which  I investigated a few months later than the work being discussed now. After I’d published some of my conclusions on that point, Koen Gheuns kindly cited my work when considering the same). Other Voynich writers have since referred to the same illustrations.

Below is a detail showing a star-holder, from an instrument probably made in Diyabakir, east of the Mediterranean coast. It was made during the lifetime of Roger Bacon and of an embassy which came to Europe representing both the Mongols and the Church of the East (‘the Nestorians’).  Diyabakir had been long been one of two major seats for the Nestorian patriarch (=pope), and remained so until 1402, when possession of the city and its surrounding lands was summarily handed over to the  Aq Qoyunlu  (the ‘white sheep’ Turcomans).   Eastern Greeks had  the astrolabe by c.200 BC

 

 

The ‘March’ diagram (f.70v) and the ‘classical nude’.

Reconsidering the ‘ladies’ on folio 70v as if with limbs restored to  “classical” form, the Mediterranean world provides only a  limited period for first enunciation of such figures and effectively excludes Greek art of the classical period – or rather that of indigenous origin.

Such a usage is commonplace in the Near East in the person of Astarte or Tanit, as well as in Egypt where it is quite normal for a fully frontal naked female to display her charms, but not in Greek art. In the 6th century [BC] it is only in extremis that women are portrayed naked or semi-naked, but this rule is broken in the case of hetairai, notably in two-dimensional art. Not until the end of the 5th century BC does mature female nudity begin to be emphasized.By contrast, it [was] acceptable in the minor arts imported from outside Greece to show the naked female form…

  • Alexandra Villing et.al, ‘Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt’ paper published by the British Museum.

While the Greeks happily drew male figures without clothing, there are very few exceptions to the rule that the female body is clothed, whether it represents a divine or a mortal being. Four exceptions are (i) Aphrodite (ii) Cassandra (ii) bathing women (iv) heterai. We see no multiplicity of unclothed female forms depicted in these cases.

The Kneeling Bather.

Robert F. Sutton, Jr. has argued that in Greek art true ‘nudes’ occur from the  5thC BC with the type he calls the  ‘kneeling bather’.  However, as you may be able to see from the examples shown below, certain of his illustrations appear to show instead a  figure dressed in a short, wide-necked garment of about knee-length and even in these cases the loins are effectively covered.

  • Robert F. Sutton, Jr., The Nature and Function of Water, Baths, Bathing and Hygiene from Antiquity through the Renaissance.(2009). Includes a section entitled ‘Female Bathers And The Emergence Of The Female Nude In Greek Art’. 

Otherwise, the ‘untainted’ nude is usually dated from Praxiteles’ execution of his now-lost Aphrodite of Cos.  (I won’t include the controversial Ludovici throne).

 

The ‘tainted’ naked woman: Helen and Cassandra types.

Where Greek imagery does show a female naked, the implication is of a reduction in social status and/or moral standing.. or that the woman is bathing as preparation for marriage. The usual subjects are Helen (later of Troy) or Cassandra, who was raped by Aias (Ajax) in Athena’s sanctuary.  A woman was considered degraded by rape almost to the status of slave-prostitute. Volition had little bearing on that perception. And despite Augustine’s spirited theological argument to the contrary in his City of God (composed in the 5thC AD), the same ideas were characteristic of medieval Latin Europe.

In the first of the two examples shown below, you also see a characteristic that will later become rare, where figures are drawn with exaggerated buttocks but calves extremely slender: almost bone-thin.  Just a couple of images of Akhenaten and some statues recovered in Kiev ((10thC AD terminus ad quem) show comparable practice, but in the Egyptian and Kiev examples, the persons are clothed.

The Roman era saw Roman goddesses generally clothed, though a number of  Greek and foreign deities and ancillary figures (such as the Karites or Charites and followers of Dionysos) were divested of their garments, and we find various examples of the frankly pronographic within some frescos in Pompeii. Of the deities Aphrodite/Venus remains the exception to that general rule against full frontal nudiry.

The next image (below) dates to the 1stC AD, and is from Pompeii.  It shows a scene which by then had a long history in Mediterranean art, and with which many of the Roman military would be familiar.  After a ten-year siege, the Greeks entered Troy. At left, Menelaus reclaims his wife by raping her. The gesture of clutching a woman’s hair expresses both contempt and aggressive sexual desire and is maintained as a convention in art from the older Greek tradition.  On the right, the aged Priam watches helplessly as Aias (Ajax) rapes his daughter, Cassandra, within Athena’s temple.  The Romans believed their own capital city had been founded by the Trojans.  As you see, the form here given Cassandra’s body has much in common with the conventions of medieval Latin art  – a long slender torso and small, high-set breasts.

Erwin Panofsky rightly noted in 1932 that ‘shapely ladies’ do not appear in Latin art before c.1450. Even by that time,  the ‘renaissance’ movement involved only a small number of artists in a small region of Europe.  In that sense, the older historians of art were justified in considering the Renaissance a sixteenth-century phenomenon in art as distinct from a revial of interest in classical texts.

Michelangelo and Raphael are credited, for example, with having “initiated the practice of making preparatory studies of the nude prior to painting the figure fully clothed, in order to better understand the underlying structure of the body.”.   The opposite has occurred in the Voynich manuscript, where the clothing is added to obscure the drawing’s points of divergence from a perceived norm,  presumably the medieval Latin.   Michelangelo was not born until perhaps fifty years and more after the Voynich manuscript was made. He was born in 1475 and Raphael  in 1483. Both reached their maturity in the sixteenth century.

It is entirely usual – it has been usual for decades – that comparisons offered for imagery in the Voynich manuscript date to as much as half a century later than it was made.

As with a cat who brings only the mouse-tail, the evidence adduced to support most Eurocentric Voynich theories is  too slender, and too late.

 

Aphrodite: the nude bather type.

Even the Greeks’ Aphrodite was usually provided some covering until the time of Praxiteles’ remarkable work. But we cannot explain the ‘ladies’ in the March diagram as a multiplicity of Aphrodites. More to the point, there is no link between Aphrodite and the star in the Greek tradition, and in the Roman tradition only via their equation between Aphrodite and Venus.

But…to cut the longer story short for the benefit of my readers…  we do find Artemis  associated with a circle of lights, and with a sequence- and a circle- of moving women.

Just so, the stars form a series and a circle of lights.. and in this case  of women.

Artemis and her women.

a type for Artemis phosphoros

Their being depicted unclothed indicates, in my opinion, that we have either the usual Roman attitude to the gods of conquered peoples, or the different attitudes expressed by art of the Hellenistic east, and particularly  what emerged among Greek, Carian and Ionian on the eastern border of what had been the Persian empire, but which Alexander reached and settled.

I’ll return to that eastern sphere later.  In the next post I’ll look further at the ‘women of Artemis’.

 

[this might be good point to take a break, have a cup of something and remember to breathe.. 🙂 ]

 

 

Foreign deities, Christian Fathers, and Augustine’s  City of God (5th and 15thC AD).

 

Some years after the research was done that I’m tracking again now,  Ellie Velinksa wrote a blogpost ( Sept. 1st., 2013. ) in which she focused on a fifteenth century French version and translation of  Augustine’s City of God (The Hague, MMW, 10 A 11).  Taking a detail from its fol. 435 (above) she suggested that those  tiered figures offer a comparison for what we see in the Voynich month-diagrams, or more exactly those in which the figures are plain and unclothed.  The Hague ms was made half a century after the Vms’ radiocarbon dates of 1404-1438. The Hague ms is dated 1475-1480.What it shows is more that even so late as the last quarter of the fifteenth century, and even in a work produced by a master in France,  the medieval body is still the norm. with its long torso, waist not emphasised and  small, high-set, round (‘apple-shaped’) breasts. The detail selected by Ellie illustrates Augustine’s explaining the irrationality of astrology and the inconsistency of the different systems.It happened that in September 2013, while I was explaining for my own readers a certain technique (‘sieving’) used to find useful comparisons for works about which some certainty already existed, I cited the following image from a text composed c.1430.  It is fairly described as both English and French as the following details explain.

from ‘Medicine and Physiognomy from 14th to Early 16th Century’ (2004).  The passage quoted below is also available in French, translated by  Marilyn Nicoud and Nicolas Weill-Parot for Médiévales, No. 46 (2004/1) pp. 89-108.

Roland was of Portuguese ancestry through his mother. He appears for the first time as a student in the registers of the University of Paris for the academic year 1419-1420. After completing his studies, he became a medical master in 1424 and dean of the faculty in 1424-25 and 1427-1430 during the English occupation. His presence in Paris in the 1430s is evidenced by several indices, the most significant being his participation in 1436 in a dispute over the days of the year 1437 favourable to phlebotomy [blood-letting] and administration of laxative medicines. From 1436 to 1442 he was regent master, and died at an uncertain date in the 1470s (1470-1477) . Among the treaties attributed to him  is a manual of Aggregatorium sive compendium artis arismetice . The latter borrows long passages from Jean de Murs’ Quadripartitum numerorum and, to a lesser extent, Nicole Oresme’s Algorismus proporcionum , so it can hardly be considered an original work. He also wrote a work on geomancy which is novel in several respects, particularly the place that Roland grants astrology in that context. His Physiognomy was one of many works which were compiled or translated by the French members of the house of the Duke of Bedford, from already existing texts. Many of these translators or compilers were graduates of the University of Paris and they probably used the funds of the Louvre library. Roland dedicated the  Reductorium phisonomie to Duke John of Bedford in the early 1430. His work has survived in three manuscripts of the fifteenth century and a copy of the seventeenth century.

This reminds us that the nearest comparison from a European work for the Voynich plants’ style of drawing occurs in a medical manuscript made in England between 1375-1425 Brit.Lib. Sloane MS 335)  and that for the first half-century of its study, the Voynich manuscript was also believed to have been written in England by the Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who had also studied in Paris.

 

In the excitement of finding something similar to the images of Beinecke MS 408 in works produced in Latin Europe, it is very easy to overlook the many and obvious differences between the style of the one and of the other.  The Hague manuscript even more than Roland’s work employ a different palette, shows clear evidence of ruling out and – unlike the Voynich images – manifest the usual patterns of western Christian ideas about the world and its organisation.

note:

On a personal note, Ellie has a good eye and one wonders what she might have discovered had she not come to the study with a ‘European-Christian-Duc de Berry’ theory, which limited the range of her work from the beginning.  She has surveyed only medieval Latin manuscripts in her work, as again in her hunt for ‘dotted stars’ (September 9th., 2013) and so remained unaware that the custom had an unbroken tradition through several thousand years, even in the Mediterranean.  Just by way of example, I’ve shown in the header a detail from ceiling of ‘dotted stars’ in a recently-uncovered tomb from pre-Ptolemaic Egypt.

 

Augustine and polytheism in the 5thC AD

While Augustine lived, the Mediterranean’s polytheistic heritage was still a living culture, one with which he was entirely familiar having converted to Christianity only in his late maturity.

Augustine was a north African, Phoenician by descent. After having been interested in Manichaeism, which was then a widespread religion across the southern Mediterranean including Byzantine north Africa, Augustine became a Christian as his mother had long wished he would.  A thousand years before the Voynich manuscript, he composed a work entitled The City of God. In fifteenth-century Europe, its message gained renewed point; those complaints voiced by Romans of the 5thC AD about the loss of Rome to barbarians were being paralleled by the Byzantines now seeking refuge in the Latin west.  In each case, there was a suggestion that the city had been lost because the older ways in religion had been abandoned.

That argument, and Augustine’s reply, may have led to the work’s renewed popularity among the non-clerical class, but certainly a magnificent copy and translation into French was made in late fifteenth century. The painter is believed the same Maitre Francois who is credited with that image of Orata whose discussion began the present series of posts.

His City of God begins with reproaches to those Romans who, by pretending to be Christians and taingn refuge in Christian churches, had been spared by the Goths during the sack of Rome. Unlike Ajax, these ‘barbarians’ respected the right of sanctuary.  Augustine knows well the classical gods and classical poets.  Nor was he alone among those whose works preserved that knowledge within Latin Europe.

Tatian, an Assyrian Christian who wrote in Syriac, had addressed the Greeks in the 2ndC AD, saying:

Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phœnicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own. Orpheus, again, taught you poetry and song; from him, too, you learned the mysteries. The Tuscans taught you the plastic art; from the annals of the Egyptians you learned to write history;

  In the same century, Clement of Alexandria could discourse on the subject of human sacrifice, mentioning Tauric Artemis as he did:

The Taurians, the people who inhabit the Tauric Chersonese, sacrifice to the Tauric Artemis immediately whatever strangers they lay hands on on their coasts who have been east adrift on the sea. …  Monimus relates, in his treatise on marvels, that at Pella, in Thessaly, a man of Achaia was slain in sacrifice to Peleus and Chiron. That the Lyctii, who are a Cretan race, slew men in sacrifice to Zeus, Anticlides shows in his ‘Homeward Journeys’; and that the Lesbians offered the like sacrifice to Dionysus, is said by Dosidas. The Phocæans also (for I will not pass over such as they are), Pythocles informs us in his third book, ‘On Concord’, offer a man as a burnt-sacrifice to the Taurian Artemis.

The cult of Artemis in Tauris had been known to the Greeks as early as the 5thC BC, when Euripides told the story of Iphigenia in his plays.  Having been saved from becoming a sacrifice at the hands of her father, Menelaus, ‘Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to serve as priestess in the goddess’ temple among the Taureans, where as part of her office she was obliged to sacrifice strangers thrown up upon that shore.  The latter part of her story is in Euripides‘ ‘Iphigenia among the Taureans’ ( Ἰφιγένεια ἐν Ταύροις)’.

Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine
Chersonese Taurica: floor mosaic (3rd-2nd century BC) Encyc. of Ukraine

Contemporary with that mosaic is the small terracotta figure – findplace unstated – shown below.

 

In the mid-thirteenth century, still, a temple of some sort stood  on an island off the coast. In c.1245, it was mentioned by William of Rubruck (Willem van Ruysbroeck), who said:

So we made sail for the province of Gazaria, or Cassaria, which is about triangular in shape, having on its west side a city called Kersona [ancient Chersonesos or Cherson; mod. Sevestopol] … And as we were sailing past Kersona we saw an island on which is a temple said to have been built by angelic hands.

The Tauric Chersonnese is now a UNESCO heritage site).

This might be a good place for images of those figures recovered from Kiev and certainly made before the mid-tenth century AD.

Nor was Augustine, in fifth-century North Africa unaware of how an unclothed woman looked.  Apart from his own experience – he had a long-term companion and several children – but from mosaics and other forms of imagery, of which a remarkable amount has survived until today from the time of Roman occupation.  Here again, however, the proportions of the body are much closer to those of medieval European art than to the Voynich manuscript’s ‘ladies’.

detail of a mosaic. Roman period. North Africa. Courtesy of theoi.com
naked, nude, un-clothed.  

I don’t describe the anthropoform figures in the month-diagrams as naked, or as nude.  The words carry overtones that I do not think can be applied yet to those figures.

Naked carries an implication of force, and chiefly of male force. A sword is naked, not nude; a body is found ‘naked’ not nude.  Unless the subject is an infant.

‘Nude’ implies a voluntary  disrobing, and a subject physically embodied.   Cassandra is naked; Helen is usually and Aphrodite invariably nude when depicted without clothing.  English doesn’t have a  neutral word for the situation we have here, where clothes may be irrelevant – so ‘unclothed’ will have to do.

The Romans’ interest in ‘shapely’ female forms ended as monotheism rose to dominate the Mediterranean.   A partial exception is found in some astronomical images, and in certain medical works which would emerge, in Latin Europe, from the schools of Paris during the 1400s.  But here again – as almost always – they offer no close comparison to what we find in the Voynich manuscript.  First enunciation of its ‘ladies’ occurred, in my opinion, during the Hellenistic period though derived ‘organically’ from earlier roots – and not necessarily Greek ones.

 

“They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world”.

 

Theory wars – an illustration

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.

top – detail of object on f.102; centre – detail of vessel. Shang dynasty; detail 17thC Chinese silver.

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).
  • On Jews of the medieval Yemen, see ‘Habbani Jews

and today I’d add:

  • 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’:

Pure Wilfridism.

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:

‘Plate 56’ from Janick and Tucker, ‘Unravelling the Voynich Codex’

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.

from a commercial site.

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.

And that’s what you get with a theory-war.

********

 

(preamble shortened – 8th April.)