O’Donovan notes. Calendar 7b – Old Ideas and Good Ideas.

2500 words.

The author’s rights are asserted

Introduction: I have already written that promised post about a certain calendar and Oxford, Bodleian Douce 313), but the amount of background information which that discussion needed made the post impossibly long, so here are sections pulled from it and which provide a little of the historical context needed to make sense of what will now follow in the next post.

Some of the material concerns attitudes to new knowledge in Europe during the time of Michael Scot and Roger Bacon. Some concerns the back-story for ideas first offered about the Voynich calendar in Jim Reeds’ mailing list but which have never yet been formally presented or tested by the people who raised them there.

If what follows has a common theme, it is how people react to new information, especially to the arrival of new and better information from a community whose ways of thought differ from those most familiar and comfortable for the recipients.

The new math

Little more than a century after Michael Scot’s death, we find him depicted in Italy as the archetypal negromancer and heretic. We are shown a figure dark of visage, dressed in what looks like a woman’s pink dress, with dark curly locks and long nose. He is shown ripping pages from some book, indifferent to Dominic’s exposition of the Truth – towards which almost all others, including foreigners, display awe and deference.

What this tells us is that Scot was already, so early, identified as a practitioner of the black arts – making it all the more remarkable that the ‘lobster’ type for Cancer, a type widely used at that time, should have come to be attributed by recent scholars to Michael Scot’s writings in particular, rather than just to England and France where he had gained his education.

Nothaft refers to one monk, a contemporary of Roger Bacon Michael Scot (1175-1232), and who had clearly mastered the new ‘Arab’ learning as it related to computus. His name was Cunestabulus, and being instructed to give an account of that foreign matter, cries aloud and most emphatically that he only records such matter in obedience to his superior… and even then feels obliged to add a rant against:

novelty-hunters and shameless scorners of antiquity … [who] arrogantly reject the position sanctioned by authority, as if it were not sophisticated enough, and who, in relying on their own wit, wish to think otherwise …as if they were the only ones in the know.

quoted in C. Philipp E. Nothaft, ‘Reluctant Innovator: Graeco-Arabic Astronomy in the “Computes” of Magister Cunestabulus (1175)’, Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2017), pp. 24-54.

This was written a hundred and fifteen years* before the king of England ordered all his Jewish subjects expelled as a way to avoid honouring his financial debts. Just so does Cunestabulus refuse to acknowledge his sources and, thus, defaults on his intellectual debts.

*corrected (18th Oct.) ’15’ should have read 115.

One does not need to be very old, or very wise, before one realises than in order to remain embraced by any community, monastic or social, certain words, names, ideas and beliefs must be treated as ‘not to be spoken’. No monk in Bacon’s time could say openly that ‘The knowledge of the Arabs and Jews’ is right” if it seemed to contradict the Book of Genesis. The fact that Genesis was a Jewish book was another thing that was not to be said too plainly.

In the earlier twentieth century, in England and in America, there were lso certain statements which could not be made, however true, and certain ideas which could not be offered honestly without negative responses from the academic community and from the general populace. Among them was that Europe had been the passive beneficiary of superior Asian learning or practice.

Lyn Thorndike battled without success to explain that Roger Bacon did not invent gunpowder. Lynn White would struggle to have the Anglophone and German world accept the reality of Asian presence in the west, and its effect in medieval and Renaissance Europe before 1490.

More recently, and to give an example to which I can attest, general readers may be forgiven for having no idea at all that for at least ten years, promoters of Eurocentric theories have been aware that the cloudband motif – often mis-called ‘wolkenband’ – came into the art of western Europe from Asia during the Mongol century.

The word’s being rendered in German may convey an idea that there’s something peculiarly German-central-European about the presence of that motif in the Voynich manuscript but such an impression is false. Because this matter will be relevant for the next post, I’ll repeat a few of the illustrations presented in my earlier essay on the subject. The first example is from fourteenth-century Padua.

That detail is taken from a painting by Guariento di Arpo (1310 -1370 AD), part of a fresco he painted for the church of the Eremitani. This shows the cloudband in its original, free-flowing form, while other details (such as the red-winged angels) suggests mediation through Byzantine forms and/or works produced earlier in the south-western Mediterranean.

This next example is from a fourteenth-century Persian miniature depicting Genghis Khan’s conquest of Baghdad in 1258.

(detail)  from Rashid-ad-Din’s Gami’ at-tawarih. Tabriz (?), 1st quarter of 14th century.

The miniature is believed painted in the city of Tabriz, in the region where the Azerbaijani is widely spoken and which was an early centre of the Yemeni Azdi. Under Mongol rule, Tabriz served as a major multinational centre of learning and of trade until it became the capital of the Turkic Qara Qoyunlu in 1375. The detail shows how that convention could also be also used for the flowing, and amorphous waters below. Christians of the Byzantine, Latin and Syrian churches, as well as Muslims, passed through Tabriz during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and have left accounts of the city’s magnificence and activity. It was there, and at the observatory of  Maragheh, that Gregory Chioniades learned Persian and studied the most recent developments in astronomical studies, specifically the updated tables of Claudius Ptolemy. 

In general, however, Europeans weren’t so comfortable with a line so irregular and chaotic, and there we soon find the motif made more nearly regular and treated more like a repeat-motif. The following example is taken from a later (c.1425-50) copy of Vox Clamantis, composed by the English poet John Gower between 1330 – October 1408.

It is certainly true that this motif is relevant to study of numerous drawings in the Voynich manuscript. It is also true that forms of ‘cloudband’ pattern were to prove popular in German-speaking regions, and especially among printers, but it is misleading to say – or even to to imply – that the presence of this motif is in itself proof that those drawings express any uniquely Germanic-central-European character. To use the term ‘wolkenband’ is of course quite correct when writing in German, but to use the German term if writing in English today is inappropriate.

Refusal to acknowledge accurately one’s sources of information, or to misrepresent the historical context by omitting any but theory-supporting material is one reason we see Voynich theories advance, while Voynich studies, as such, does not. Instead one sees the same ideas raised, supported, or let fall below the horizon, until some later person re-presents, re-discovers or re-invents them. The phenomenon Pelling once termed the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’.

Failure to do any more than raise ideas or repeat ideas without troubling to investigate and test them is another factor which prevents the study’s advance.

I am grateful to a former Voynichero* for bringing to my notice a series of communications made to Jim Reeds’ Voynich research mailing list in 1998. Among them are some which raise or make points I’ve made again recently in all ignorance. For example, I did not know that Jorge Stolfi had spoken of the “zodiac” – in quotation marks – in one of those communications. Another contributor in that year raised, apparently for the first time, the interesting possibility raised several times since then, but never actually researched, that Voynichese may use a script invented to record foreign languages.

*who is quite determined to remain anonymous, I’m sorry to say.

We also see, in that year, a communication from Rene Zandbergen in which he sketches roughly a theoretical link made between some drawings in the manuscript, certain ideas about astrology and about women’s medicine. Since 1998 many of those items, separately or together, have hardened into things ‘everyone knows’ though to my knowledge neither Zandbergen nor anyone else has actually presented a formal paper arguing that such matters are found united in any particular time and place. Any who might care to present such an argument should not neglect to mention Zandbergen, should he have been the first to raise that possibility.

Jorge Stolfi was contributing an account of the Chinese calendar, and from that information we learn that it was not only the Jews whose calendar considered a 19-yr cycle. He also provides another possible explanation for what we’d regard as months of 30 or 29 days, and refers to notional ‘agricultural seasons’ of 15 days or half-months. To my knowledge, no-one but P.Han ever attempted to argue the Voynich calendar a Chinese calendar.

Stolfi wrote,

“I wonder if there is any resemblance between it [the Chinese calendar] and Vms “zodiac” charts. I am not holding my breath, but still…

The classical Chinese calendar, in use for over 3000 years, was the “yin-yang li” or “lunar-solar calendar”. A “vanilla” year had 354 days, divided into 12 months, alternately 30 and 29 days, adding to 6 x 59 = 354. To keep the calendar in sync with the solar year (~365.25 days) and lunar month (~29.59 days), an extra would be inserted in some “leap years”. (An early scheme inserted 7 extra months in a fixed pattern over a period of 19 years).

The agricultural seasons: Independently of this lunar-solar system, the solar year was also divided into “agricultural seasons” by 24 seasonal points, spaced exactly 15 degrees apart on the zodiac. Therefore, a season lasted usually 15 but sometimes 16 days.

There’s a lot more in that communication, but my point is that almost a quarter-century ago, Voynich research had already reached a point where the “zodiac” idea was doubted; where researchers knew that a 19-yr cycle was not found only in Jewish calendar-calculations, that a time-marking system existed which could described the year in terms of 15 (or 16)-day periods and/or in terms of nominal “agricultural seasons” providing 24 periods of 15 degrees each.

In 1998, no-one looked more deeply into that question of Asian influence, perhaps because the study was still deeply reliant on Mary d’Imperio’s little book, and affected by the fact that the twentieth century’s attitudes had been unrelievedly Eurocentric.

Annette Stroud asked (April 15th., 1998) whether the Voynich script mightn’t be “a sort of shorthand capturing the graphic elements of an unfamiliar script.” She mentioned Arabic in particular.

Another member immediately blocked any conversation developing about that possibility, chiming in to state with apparent authority that:

“The totally European (Italian) character of the Ms has been used as an argument against an Arabic origin”.

To the best of my knowledge no-one has yet investigated the question of how foreign languages might have been represented by foreigners who went to foreign lands to trade, to preach or to reside and who learned to speak but not to write the local languages. We know, of course, that Jews would often write Arabic in Hebrew letters, and one sometimes sees other cases of mingled scripts Here, for example, are Egyptian (‘Coptic’) numerals combined with Syriac letters, though perhaps numerals are not relevant.

The next communication of April 15th., 1998 came from Zandbergen.

He does not react to Stolfi’s writing “zodiac” in quotes, but says:

the birthplace of Peter of Abano, whom I once tentatively connected with the zodiac section [sic], was a famous thermal spa in Roman and medieval times, known for treatment of (a.o.) women’s diseases. Abano translated a Persian work about the astrological significance of each of the thirty degrees of each zodiac sign (by Abu Ma’shar, a.k.a. Albumasar, also quite famous).

I’m not saying Abano wrote the VMs. He’s about as likely a source as Roger Bacon.

And on that inconclusive note, discussion of the Calendar ended for the time.

In concert with other Voynicheros, notably Toresella, Edith Sherwood, and ‘Steve D’, Zandbergen would attempt more than a decade later to create an official ‘Voynich herbal’ as adjunct to an extraordinary theory involving women’s baths, women’s medicine and an apparently fictional ‘Voynich villa’ located somewhere in Italy – though the narrative drew in some of Dana Scott’s identification of English plants, and some of my own plant-identifications (re-assigned to other folios at random to avoid due acknowledgements).

No solid evidence from archeology, historical or ethnobotany, or any informed analysis of the drawings was ever offered as support for that quasi-historical scenario or the rather dubious effort to own the plant-drawings. Whether the material was ever inflicted on the public in print I do not know. It can hardly have improved scholarly opinion of Voynich studies.

Another oddly arbitrary attitude to provenancing our present manuscript occurred in 2011. As soon as the radiocarbon range was published, it was asserted that since Roger Bacon cannot have hand-written the Voynich text, so the entire matter of an English provenance could be abandoned, along with the question of an Italian provenance, and both could be replaced by the ‘German-central European’ theory which had been waiting impatiently in the wings,

The difference was that the two previous opinions had come from persons experienced in evaluating a manuscript’s palaeography, codicology and general appearance, where the novel theory was not.

Persons trained and experienced in evaluating manuscripts had offered only two possibilities between 1912 and 2011 – England, or Italy.

Fixation on some ‘single author’ theory had blinded most to the fact that the one consensus was not necessarily incompatible with the other. One might well describe he origin (and hence the appearance) of the content, and the other the present quires’ place of manufacture during the early fifteenth century… as we shall see.

O’Donovan notes #5. Selecting your sources.

c. 2,000 words.

The author’s rights are asserted.

Reminder these ‘Notes’ are mainly for people unused to researching in a cross-disciplinary area of study; who want to avoid repeating Voynich studies’ past mistakes, and who would like to begin from a foundation more solid than guesswork-as-theory.

SO now – having thought long and hard about your own strengths and weaknesses, your natural talents and trained skills, and found some specific question that appeals to you, it’s time to compile a list of material that will give your effort as solid a grounding as possible and help you avoid wasting time on re-inventing wheels.

The more precise the question you want to tackle, the more detailed will be the material you’ll need to have under your belt before you begin.

Suppose for example you were to take up the ‘ten-month-calendar’ question, side-stepping interference from Voynich theorists trying to suggest you’re asking ‘unnecessary’ questions. There are two questions here, one more difficult than the other. The more difficult question is why certain months are doubled. One might first consider lunar calendars which often had intercalary months to bring them into line with the solar year. There are also liturgical calendars which had optional schemes for (e.g.) years in which Easter did, or didn’t, fall in a given month. But that’s just an example. It would be a mistake to restrict your exploration to any one region or period, if the aim is to put the Voynich calendar in its proper context and learn more of its original home. It has to be remembered that we don’t know where, or when, the calendar diagrams were first given their form.*

*The central emblems are a different question, because a a number of display characteristics and attitudes distinctly different from the main part of these diagrams.

I don’t recommend relying on wiki articles or Voynich-specific materials for your foundational reading. The question is about calendars and intercalated, doubled or alternative months, so you’ll need to see what is already known about such things and that means reading the opinion of scholars who’ve specialised in that area.

Don’t try to wing it. If you haven’t time or opportunity to access specialist studies or fairly high-tech databases, it would be better to pick another question.

You might look at the easier question of why the calendar has been reduced to a ten-month period. Here again, look out for interference in the form of ‘top-of-the-head’ bits of imagining by theorists who don’t like to see people asking questions and doing work that might show up a flaw in their preferred theory. Any question to which there’s not an answer able to stand up to (non-Voynich) peer-review is a question still deserving investigation.

To be sure that it hasn’t been treated in depth already, you will have to survey past Voynich writings and see if anyone has asked the ‘doubled months’ question and answered it from something better than guesswork or an intention to support some theoretical narrative. Test their assumptions, the range and depth of their evidence adduced, and also test the writers’ balance.

One way to do this is to look at the writer’s bibliography – does it look as if they’ve done enough background study themselves? Another way is to see who they, themselves, name-check. If the only names they mention are cronies, wiki articles and theory-supporting material, it’s not a good sign.

Here you will encounter a major difference between the standards of documentation expected in the pragmatic sciences as against the higher standards expected in the critical sciences.

It’s a difference of which many Voynich writers appear to be unaware, which means that when someone whose training has been in the pragmatic sciences (chemistry, cryptography, computer sciences etc.) attempts to produce material touching on the critical sciences (history, art history, iconographic analysis etc.), they often produce material that seems pretty woeful in its lack of evidence, slack attitudes to citing precedents, thin and biased bibliographies and so on.

There’s a good reason for the difference, though.

In one sense, the pragmatic sciences are less demanding than are the critical sciences, because if you’re working a problem, you’re normally working from a basis of data that has already been independently tested and verified, and which can still be subjected to verification independently of any previous hypothesis or theory.

Darwin’s birds were real birds; to establish that they were real and not a product of Darwin’s imagination, poor memory, poor range of knowledge, mis-perception or were pseudo-facts invented to give his theory a better impression of plausibility, you didn’t have to start by subscribing to any theory about them, including Darwin’s. Their existence was objective fact. You could ask the simple question, ‘Is that true’ about his description of those creatures and find a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.

But the critical sciences – which include most of the subjects bearing on questions raised about a medieval manuscript – aren’t like that.

Once more, SirHubert put it best when he addressed cryptographers:

.. breaking ciphers is all about testing hypotheses and finding the consistent solution, of which there will be only one. Historical research doesn’t admit of one neat solution and works very differently.

“SirHubert” – comment to ciphermysteries, (December 10, 2013)

When you find a combination of historical and scientific matter, the usual rule is to follow the stricter rules for documentation that apply in the critical sciences. You must show by citing precedent studies that you are aware of them, and by referring to more than one point of view that you have formed a balanced opinion on a given topic. This is done in the body of the text, in the bibliography and in footnotes whose purpose is to answer some additional question likely to arise for the reader.

The aim of scholarly apparatus (bibliography and footnotes) is not to convince a reader to accept your opinion, but to provide them the means to consider your work critically. They are entitled to know what background work you’ve done, where you got your information, and whether you have dealt fairly with previous work by other scholars, with the material itself, and with the core question.

For people trained in the pragmatic sciences, it is quite common to refer only to the specific sources which provided data and methodology for the specific paper or essay, and to include only sources which verify data used in that paper and support the paper’s conclusions or theory.

But in terms of the critical sciences that’s just not good enough. Which is probably why so many Voynicheros produce material which would not survive for a minute if exposed to the heat of external scholarly review.

So how can you decide if a Voynich writer’s work is good enough to add to your own initial reading list, the foundation on which you intend to build?

It’s easiest to give an example of a computer scientist whose work shows both range and balance even if its actual documentation seems a bit sparse at first.

IN August of last year, Julian Bunn wrote an essay, published through his blog, on the subject of cipherwheels and the Voynich text.

It was the fifth post in a series and if you’re interested in cryptography and statistical studies of Voynichese, I suggest you pause long enough to read his post before reading the rest of mine.

Julian Bunn, ‘The Wheels hit a bump’, Computational Attacks on the Voynich Manuscript (blog), August 22nd., 2021.

A most important question which any reader is bound to ask of a writer is “What first suggested this idea to you?”

If the answer is ‘It just came to me’ or ‘It is a theory’ or they say nothing but adopt a pose of hauteur, then you’re entitled to consider their argument to be, in the most literal sense, base-less.

Julian does answer that question, because readers can follow the train of thought through the preceding four posts in that same series. In reverse order, they are:

I don’t think Julian will object to my describing him as a ‘Voynich traditionalist’ in the general sense, but as you’ll see he doesn’t admit, or blank, other research according to whether it does or doesn’t conform to a preferred theoretical narrative.

Bunn’s bibliography might look a bit sparse, but the text shows that he has studied carefully both the methods of statistical analysis in the broader context, and earlier studies by other Voynich writers.

He can appreciate and acknowledge Jorge Stolfi’s statistical studies, though I’ve never seen any suggestion that he agrees with Stolfi’s conclusion that Voynichese was an inner Asian language (Stolfi suggested perhaps Jurchen). Again, though I’ve not seen Emma May Smith campaign for adoption of any theoretical narrative, Bunn easily and naturally refers to her work as a linguist. So that indicates an honest and balanced attitude and while Bunn might just add a link to another researcher’s work, this has become usual for the sciences.

If I were researching some question about historically appropriate cipher-methods, Bunn’s work would be included in my preliminary bibliography.

Whether his findings are right, wrong, or a bit of each is a different matter. The work is solidly based, fairly documented, shows balance and range (within limits) and Bunn is plainly no theory-fanatic.

His work aims at making a contribution to our understanding of Beinecke MS 408.

There is another type of Voynich writing which is the antithesis of the ‘contribution’ sort. I think of it as aiming only to puff up a Voynichero’s self-image – wanna-be ‘owners of‘ the study.

Ideally, now, I’d find an example to contrast with Bunn’s study, and one which also talks about cipher-wheels, Grove words and word-distribution but I haven’t the taste for it, so I’ll instead quote someone who has expressed better than I can how it feels to read material of that kind.

“What particularly frustrates me is that …there are plenty of ways Voynich researchers can make genuine progress towards understanding what is going on: but ..they instead persist in trying to airball their own personal Voynich match-winner from the other end of the basketball court. They seem seduced by the glamour of being The One Who Solved The Voynich, instead of getting on with the graft of making a difference to what we know

I still think it a pity that the moderator of a certain forum was lobbied to gag discussion of methodology, and did so without so much as taking a vote on the subject.

Ignorance of appropriate method is one reason that so much that is produced by Voynich writers presents the wider world with an image of the study as foolish, dishonest and generally ill-informed when it comes to those subjects which belong to the critical- rather than the pragmatic sciences.

These are why Jacques Guy’s remarks made almost twenty years ago remain true today:

Much of what has been written on the subject [of this manuscript] would have been laughed out of court under normal circumstances. Why it has not been is another enigma.

Jacques Guy, ‘Folly Follows the Script: the Voynich Manuscript’, Times Higher Education Supplement, September 17, 2004.

In the next post, I’ll outline ways to weigh the worth of comments made about images in the manuscript using the criteria of an analytical-critical approach.

Just remember the basic issue – a reader is entitled to ask of anything you assert about this manuscript. “Is that true?” and is also entitled to an informed answer to that question.

As a rule of thumb, I downgrade the value of assertions made by any person who relies more on their imagination than on research; any person who tries to suggest that to even to accept that fundamental question, let alone to provide an honest answer for it, is beneath their dignity. Reputable scholars just don’t do that.

‘Pharma’ – the routes

two prior:

AT PRESENT we’re considering the range over which information might have been gathered and brought to western Europe before 1400-1440, so to inform the pictorial text in Beinecke MS 408.

The reason for doing this is partly that the range and style of artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section (which Newbold imagined dealt with pharmaceuticals) find no comparison in Europe before our present manuscript was made, and partly that Georg Baresch who had the manuscript for about thirty years and who tried repeatedly to get better information about it, thought that the Voynich plants were not native to Europe, and that a person had gathered ‘from eastern parts’ the information now informing the text.

The previous post looked at the six-hundred year long connection between Europe and the territories once part of the Sasanian Persian empire, though which the overland ‘silk and spice’ routes passed.

This post considers the sea- and land routes whose use is attested during the relevant period by the travels of two men, each of whom began their voyages in the western Mediterranean, travelled east, and returned before the mid-1350s.

The first left Venice in 1271, returning in 1295. The other left from Tangier, Morocco in 1325, his final return occurring in 1354, after which he settled in Grenada for a time where his travels were narrated. The name of the first was Marco Polo; of the second, Ibn Battuta.

What we know of Marco Polo’s journey is owed to what might be called ‘the popular press’, a writer having heard of Polo who was then in prison. Polo’s story was constructed by that writer from what Polo told him from the prison cell. Ibn Battuta was received home with honour and his account of his travels recorded by his students for – unlike Latin Europe – the Islamic world had an active tradition of first-hand geographic writing and its study of geography did not await reception of a copy of Claudius’ Ptolemy’s thousand year old text.

Maximus Planudes (1260 – c. 1305 AD). Some scholars associate Planudes with Codex Vatopedinus 65 (early 14thC)

(However, for an overview of Ptolemy’s Geographia in Renaissance Europe, I warmly recommend Thony Christie’s recent post).

Routes indicated by the narrative of Maro Polo’s journeys. For an interactive version, see the website exploration.marinersmuseum.org/event/marco-polo-interactive-map

As you see, the routes agree pretty well, so we may rely upon it that these are the likely routes along which such information might have been gathered by any trader-traveller before 1400, regardless of his birthplace, native language or religion.

So – in theory at least, the drawings of plants and artefacts in the ‘leaf-and-root’ section might represent products from anywhere along those much-travelled routes, whether overland or by sea. If the possibilities are many, they are also daunting.

In those days, almost any traveller was perforce a trader, for there was no other way to support the costs of travel except by trading as one went. Some few might be sponsored by kings. Others might find that on reaching a given region the local ruler was willing to provide the necessities of life. But the majority had to trade in order to travel and the hardships and perils of travel meant that most travelled for no other reason. All found that while death might with good luck be avoided, taxes could not.

There have been a few earlier suggestions, by Voynich writers, that the manuscript evinces an ‘eastern’ character in some sense.

While the majority have maintained various versions of Wilfrid Voynich’s basic ‘all-European’ theory, in 2002 Jorge Stolfi concluded from his computer-analysis of the written text that ‘Voynichese’ might be an Asian language and suggested Jurchen as one possibility. His investigation began after a mock-theory had been presented by Jacques Guy, but Guy himself later went into print to make clear that while he had been joking about his ‘Chinese theory’, Stolfi’s method and results should not be regarded other than seriously and saying, further, that he had found no fault with either.

I do not recommend the ‘Voynich wiki’ article on this subject. Its anonymous author has improperly taken, without mention of the source, original contributions to the study made by P.Han, by the present author and doubtless by others,  all represented as if they were original work of that wiki writer. It is not honestly done.

Some years later, two botanists named Wiart and Mazars offered a couple of botanical identifications which named plants from the eastern world. Among the botanical identifications initially offered by Edith Sherwood were some whose form was unknown to formal western botany until after 1450, but well-known along those several of the eastern routes, the luffa and ‘banana'[f.13r] among them. Plants having similar appearance and fruit – thus of the same general ‘banana’ type – exist in a wide variety and are found from Africa to the Himalayas and South-east Asia. (italicised phrase added 27/08/2021)

For some years, those botanical identifications were little regarded and the very short contribution by Wiart and Mazars might have been ignored into oblivion had not Nick Pelling, despite his own clearly sceptical reaction, not noted and commented on their views in 2010, writing:

Guy Mazars and Christophe Wiart in Actualites en Phytotherapie … propose that many of the Voynich Manuscript’s mysterious plants may in fact be East Asian plants (for example, that f6v depicts Ricinus communis) or Indian plants (they think that many of the plants shown are types of Asteraceae, with f27r representing Centella Asiatica).

  • Nick Pelling, ‘Chinese Voynich Theories…’ ciphermysteries, 14th May, 2010.
Yale, Beinecke MS 408 fol.13r

I too identified the subject of the drawing on folio 13r as representing plants of the ‘banana’ type, publishing a detailed analysis of the drawing itself and notes on historical context, pointing out that the fairly literal representation, in this case, showed personal knowledge of such plants and thus stood in opposition to the fact that the physical appearance of these ‘banana’ plants had remained unknown to European botany until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The inference then seemed fairly obvious, viz, that the plant-pictures could not be derived from any western botanical or herbal text, a conclusion which agrees in general terms with what John Tiltman had concluded after witnessing the failures of the Friedman groups’ over thirty years. He said, in 1968:

to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval [European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] 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. (p.11)

  • John H. Tiltman, ‘The Voynich Manuscript “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World” (1968) NSA DOCID: 631091, released under Freedom of Information Act, Case #19159, 23-Apr-2002.

 I included in my definition of the ‘banana group’ species so grouped by peoples in lands where the plants grow. Of these, some were and others were not later classed by Linnaeus as Musaceae. But Linneus was not the first person to observe and describe plants in ‘groupings’ and botanical observation and classification did not begin in Europe.

The sort of response which my historical commentary met then, and later,  is nicely illustrated by a very late comment (2018) made after I had closed off the research from the public.  The following was made by a pen-named contributor to one Voynich forum, and reads in part: 
[O’Donovan] .. was not the first to correlate (sic!)  banana and f13r, and credits Edith Sherwood with coming up with the banana ID. … while Sherwood (and many others) see 13r as a banana, [O’Donovan’s] idea(sic!) is that this folio depicts the whole Musa “group”, however anachronistic that may seem (obviously the notion of a Musaceae family is a Linnean one, so I really don’t know what kind of “group” she thinks this depicts).
That writer (known as ‘Vviews’) overlooked the critical point –  that such detailed knowledge of the plants’ appearance had remained unknown to western botanical and herbal texts until long after the Voynich manuscript was made. The curious assumption that the fact ‘many others’ later accepted the opinion reached independently by Sherwood, and by the present author, constitutes some form of criticism of those authors is more difficult to explain.  Sherwood had been the first since 1912 to offer the identification. 
glass. recovered Begram. Alexandrian influence 1stC BC-1stC AD.

Baresch also said the content represented ‘Egyptian’ knowledge. About seventeenth-century Europeans’ notions of how far ‘Egyptian’ learning and culture had anciently spread, I’ll speak some other time. For now I’ll mention only that between Afghanistan’s lapis lazuli mines and Egypt, connection is attested from about 3,000 years before the Roman era, initially via Mesopotamia, but directly from well before the time of Roman ascendancy in the Mediterranean. We see evidence of this, in the 1stC AD, in the mixed Hellenistic, Egyptian and Roman cultural influence evinced by artefacts recovered from Begram. One example is shown (right).

The routes taken separately by Marco Polo and by Ibn Battuta co-incide in that same region, one that may seem distant and inaccessible from a European point of view but which was quite literally a centre of the world. In medieval times it was a crossroads of the ‘silk and spice’ routes, and a centre for the ancient trade in medicinal plants from the Himalayas east, west and to as far south as southern India.

The four main medical-pharmaceutical traditions of the older world were (in chronological order) the Egyptian, India’s Ayurveda, the Chinese and the Hellenistic. Trade in scented plants for incense, perfumes and items made of scented woods was also well developed by medieval times and those raw materials were traded across both the overland and the maritime routes when Polo and Ibn Battuta were there.

From here – the eastern side of what had been the old Achaemenid Persian empire, and later the limit of Alexander’s conquests, Buddhism was disseminated, and the oldest extant printed book has been recovered – the copy of a Buddhist text dated to the ninth century AD. From here, too, the region’s astronomical tradition – maintained quite possibly in an unbroken line from the period of Hellenistic-Indian interaction – was taken westward as refugees fled under the pressure of the Mongol invasion, their knowledge eventually informing the work done in Tabriz. Syria and Egypt regained, at that same time and evidently from the same cause, the previously ‘lost’ art of enamelling and gilding glass.

Considered in its historical context, the thirteenth-century Syrian glass is a poignant testimony to the fate of Nishapur in 1221 AD. Among the tens of thousands slaughtered was a poet named Attar and I believe the ornament on this glass is intended as a testimony to the city, its images a reference to Attar’s ‘Conference of the Birds’, the author having been among the thousands massacred when his city of Nishapur was depopulated and systematically destroyed, as so many others in the region were by the Mongols. Attar’s poem, however, survived and is still in print and much loved. It is a superb moral and spiritual allegory. In the view (right) the Simurgh and Hoopoe are both visible.

Between the time when Marco Polo had set off for the east in 1271 and when Ibn Battuta did so in 1325, major changes had occurred in the Mediterranean.

In 1290, the Mamluks of Egypt finally removed the last of the foreign-occupied centres in the Holy Land. Thus, while Marco Polo had been able to enter through Acco (Acre) and then use the Mesopotamian corridor to reach the sea in 1271, but on his return in 1295 that way was barred to European Christians and he had to go north and reach the Mediterranean by way of the Black Sea.

In the meantime, and as I first described when explaining the drawing on folio 5v, a large group of Genoese shipwrights and mercenaries had left for Mesopotamia in 1290, responding to an embassy sent two years earlier to the west by the Mongol il-Khan Arghun, who was planning a war against the Mamluks of Egypt.

Seven hundred of those Genoese went directly to Baghdad, but two hundred stopped at Mosul (ancient Nineveh), where they spent the winter building two sea-going ships. Mosul has no natural supply of ship-building timber but its reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world, and a hull painted with bitumen deterred attacks from the teredo or ‘shipworm’ which was the scourge of shipping in the eastern seas. Mosul was also a major supplier of astronomical instruments through the earlier medieval centuries and here too a version of the Dioscoridan herbal was made in which several elements find their counterpart in plant-pictures from the Voynich manuscript. That herbal was sent to Mashhad.

In posts to voynichimagery, I spoke in greater detail of the matters touched on in the paragraph above.  About the Genoese in Mesopotamia, I spoke initially when explaining the drawing on folio 5v. (Marancini’s ‘bitumen’ essay was published a few years later).  I’ll here add part of a footnote from a late post to voynichimagery  (October 21st., 2016).      ‘Mosul’s reserves of bitumen were the marvel of the ancient, classical and medieval world…’ Using pitch, tar/bitumen to waterproof a hull is as old as the Akkadians in Mesopotamia. It is mentioned in Jewish law: Noah is told “Make for yourself an ark ..  make compartments in the ark and cover it with tar [=pitch] inside and outside”.  Phoenicians obtained tar from the Dead sea and  from Commagene though Syro-Phoenicians would have known the deposits of Mosul (ancient Nineveh).  Herodotus (Bk.1, 179) describes a fountain of pitch in Babylon in lower Mesopotamia and, later, Eratosthenes (as reported by Plutarch Alexander, 35) did the same.   It occurs  in Mosul in association with natural petroleum oil and sulphur. On the history of bitumen’s  trade  see  Jacques Connan and Thomas Van de Velde, ‘An overview of bitumen trade in the Near East from the Neolithic (c.8000 BC) to the early Islamic period’, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (May 2010) pp. 1-19.

Using their existing leverage with Constantinople and now with Baghdad, the Genoese were soon (from 1291) able to gain trading privileges amounting at first to near-monopoly in the Black Sea and similar rights of access to the eastern goods which were now being re-routed, from the older direct way via Damascus to that northern route, the same route which linked to the Persian gulf and which Marco Polo had been obliged to follow when returning west. The same route would been taken to Tabriz by ibn Battura in c.1326. All the gems and spices, all the practical and medicinal products, as well as materials used for pigments and dyes, now came west through that route or – with various limits and prohibitions and less reliably – via Cairo, Armenia and Tunis.

In sum:

Having shown that it is theoretically possible for ‘eastern parts’ to have contributed matter later copied to make Beinecke MS 408, the next post will consider details in the drawings from the ‘leaf and root’ section, to see if any offer evidence of such origins.

For anyone to have troubled to copy and to carry to Europe, and there to have copyied again with care any such information would imply (a) that the graphic conventions need not be those of western Europe or indeed of the Mediterranean, and (b) that the persons concerned in such a transmission are unlikely to have been members of those higher social groups who have traditionally peopled Europe’s ‘intellectual history’. More likely by far is that such persons would be practical otherwise unknown individuals, ones motivated chiefly by profit over any literary value though perhaps believing, as most medieval people did, that the oldest sources were the purest. Apart from western missionaries, those who moved between the eastern and western limits of the known world before 1440 were almost all traveller-traders, even if (like the Bolognese doctor mentioned in one letter attributed to the Sicilian missionary John de Montecorvino), their ‘trade’ was medicine.

What magic, where magic? 5a: ‘occulted’ blind spots and artisans.

Two prior

Header image: (left) artificial ruby from the Cheapside hoard; (right) detail from Oxford, Bodleian MS Holkham misc. 48 p.54.starry band stretched

Preamble:

Jorge Stolfi here uses ‘byzantine’ in the metaphorical sense (I think) when writing to the first mailing list:

“I am aware that many quite reasonable people … find a non-European origin so unlikely (a priori) that they would rather believe in impractically complicated codes, Byzantine decoys, and secretive communities of herbal conspirators, just to avoid it. ”

Jorge Stolfi (2002). read the conversation

We owe the “all-European-Christian-Voynich” doctrine less to any one person than to the persistence of nineteenth century attitudes in the popular culture of England, northern Europe and America through the first half of last century.

No-one offered a formal argument that the manuscript’s content was an expression of European culture. Before Stolfi, it seems never to have occurred to anyone to think otherwise, despite the most eminent specialists’ finding both the written- and the pictorial text unreadable in those terms.

Newbold frankly admits, in 1921, that his description of the manuscript’s divisions (which are now applied as if  ‘Voynich doctrines’ too) are no more than his personal impressions of the pictures, and he never claimed to have found any supporting material in works produced from western Christian (‘Latin’) Europe.  In fact, he plainly says the opposite in speaking of the diagrams he describes as ‘astronomical or astrological’. See Newbold’s lecture, April 1921 p.461-2.  For the online link see  ‘Constant references’ in Cumulative Bibliography  –  top bar).

Certainly the fifteenth-century artefact’s quires are bound in  European-and-Armenian  style.  McCrone’s analysis found nothing inconsistent with western custom in a few samples taken of some few among its pigments.  There is a high probability that the scribes and perhaps the inventor of  any Voynichese cipher  was either European or resident in Europe  – the ‘humanist hand’ (if that’s what it is) would suggest northern Italy, and the month-names as well as the late-stratum images (such as the month-diagrams’ centres and the diagram containing the ‘preacher of the East’ with its figure in Mongol dress)  may imply a resident in medieval Italy, in a Papal city such as Viterbo, in Spain, or in an area of Anglo-French influence including Sicily-  but all these provide an argument about the object’s manufacture, not about the cultural origin of its written- or the majority of its pictorial text, and that distinction is important (as Buck was neither first nor last to point out) because it may help to direct researchers towards the written text’s original language. Or, of course, this being the Voynich manuscript  – it might not.

A possible ‘foreign’ origin for the content was never rejected by earlier writers; it never entered their horizon, and when Stolfi spoke to it in the early 2000s, unpleasantness resulted.

It is an astonishing thing to realise, but a great many people even in the twenty-first century take it for granted that ‘normal’ means ‘European-style’.  And so though the manuscript constantly refuses to fit that ‘norm’, the effort has been as constant as unavailing to argue that its content is, or should be, or is trying to be, or was meant to be ‘normal’ in that sense.  It doesn’t contain a zodiac, but is deemed to contain a zodiac. The same section includes ‘doubled’ months – that doubling is habitually treated as non-existent or   is rationalised by implying or asserting it a mistake…  And so on. 

Here again Stuart Buck’s comment resonates: “You can’t just wave it away because you don’t understand it.”

So ingrained was the general habit of assuming that ‘normal’ meant western Christian (‘Latin’) that it spilled over to the earliest discussions of the manuscript, those involved being quite oblivious of that blind spot in contemporary American and European habits of mind. ‘European’ had became a tacit default and so, without conscious thought, their “medieval” world contained nothing but the ‘medieval European’.

This blind spot affects even the exceptionally clear-minded and clear-sighted  John Tiltman.  When, at last,  on the brink of suggesting some other-than-Latin origin, he says of the Voynich plant pictures: 

tiltman in scots uniform“To the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [European] medieval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of [European] writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early Middle Ages right through into the sixteenth and even seventeenth centuries is very limited indeed.” (Elegant Enigma p.13)

He did not continue the thought  to its conclusion – at least, not in words.

More than thirty years’ failure by NSA cryptographers to ‘break the text’,  seems to have almost allowed d’Imperio to break past that assumption, and to allow the possibility of ‘foreignness’ to arise but she immediately pulls back,  resorting to what became the usual rationalisation – some imagined ‘author’ invested with imagined faults. d’Imperio was a team player. 

Nevertheless, given her orderly mind and pride in rationality, her sequence (below) implies a scale of increasing personal distaste:

“The impression made upon the modern viewer.. is one of extreme oddity, quaintness, and  foreignness – one might also say unearthliness…

In the end, as her ‘Table of Contents’ shows she preferred to opt for a European  ‘unearthly’ occult over the ‘foreign’.

It is much to the point, too, that from 1912 until long after Wilfrid’s death, the manuscript had to be supposed an expression of European culture to arouse interest, let alone to attract Wilfrid’s high price. The buying public would not have thought any medieval manuscript of much value unless it were associated with an important European or be (as d’Imperio insisted we must believe) “of importance for Europe’s  intellectual history”.  Otherwise, even European medieval manuscripts were perceived by the public as being little more than curios or objets d’art. Nearly twenty years after Wilfrid began trying to sell his ‘Bacon ciphertext’ the author of a  rather good article about medieval manuscripts could still write, without a blush:

Everything is “quaint” about the medieval book. In libraries, every custodian of such manuscripts is familiar with the sighs of surprise which they elicit on the part of the unspoiled visitor. What to wonder at first: at the heavy parchment leaves, the black mass of the writing, or the queer little pictures dressed up with gold?

  • Zoltán Haraszti, ‘Medieval Manuscripts’, The Catholic Historical Review , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Jul., 1928), pp. 237-247.

Today,  a medieval laundry-list might be greeted with keen scholarly and general interest, but in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘history’ was still the story of important men doing important things.  Even if Wilfrid hadn’t presented the manuscript as the ultimate purchase for the socially ambitious, importance  at that time would still have demanded some important person as  ‘author’ and/or important previous owners. Satisfying an  ‘important author’ expectation meant, in turn,  supposing everything in Wilfrid’s manuscript an original composition and not a copy or a collection of extracts from older texts, as most medieval manuscripts are.

Even Erwin Panofsky initially presumed an ‘author’ for the manuscript and, thus, that the first enunciation of its written- and pictorial texts were contemporary with each other and with the present manuscript’s making. At first. On reflection he realised that “it could be a copy of a considerably older document.” This had no discernible effect on Voynich writers and as recently as 2011, my saying the manuscript was obviously derived from more than one exemplar met howls of derision in one Voynich arena and demands that I name the informing texts. Today, the hunt for an ‘author’ is less pronounced an aspect of the study, but the Eurocentric default remains.

As counterweight for such reflexive assumptions, you might care to remember, when next you are looking at a pretty, fifteenth century French Psalter, that as much as 2,600 years and as many miles separates first enunciation of the Psalms from that copy you hold and, further, that its pictures are equally divorced in both form and imagining from what could have been in the first singer’s mind, or pictures which might have been made by those who first translated the Psalms into Greek or into Latin.

detail from front page of Saxl's work 1915Conversely, an opposite relationship can exist between written and pictorial text, and it is unwise to take as a first premise that a medieval manuscript’s written and pictorial texts were first  created by the same person/s at the same time, or that the images are merely ‘illustrations’. Such things need to be established, or at the very least treated as something to be resolved.

For his ‘ugly duckling’ manuscript, though, Wilfrid created a marvellous history – its textRuritanian romance must be the brain-child of a remarkable scientist; had then been fostered by a family of the English nobility,  then carried by a wise magician, advisor to a queen, to the ultimate rung of the social ladder –  greeted by an Emperor who (according to a barely credible bit of hearsay) had handed over a staggering price.. I almost said ‘dowry’ .. to the carrier. All the characters save the manuscript are, of course, superior types and western European Christian males.

Had anyone persuaded Friedman that the manuscript was less touched by glory, and persuaded him that – for example – it was a Jewish work of science, or was foreign, or was a collection of tradesman’s secrets or that the academic board was right in thinking it contained “only trivia”,  I doubt that he’d have been so eager to engage with it.  We might never have had the NSA involved, nor Currier’s paper of 1976 and then d’Imperio’s Elegant Enigma, the last rather sobering if you see it as a summary of the NSA’s failed efforts, over more than three decades, to break an assumed ‘ciphertext’. 

Nor does d’Imperio’s Table of Contents or Bibliography offer evidence that the teams had sought vocabularies of artisanal techne, but only those of scholarly theoria.

It was another major blind spot, this time a reflection of contemporary attitudes to ‘ordinary’ people.

BOOKS OF [technical] SECRETS

Before the end of the fifteenth century, what was contained in the Latin European’s  ‘Book of Secrets’ was most often professional and artisanal ‘tricks of the trade’ – recipes for inks and dyes obtained from plants or minerals,  methods by which jewellers made and coloured imitation gems and so on. Scholarly interest in this topic has moved way in recent years from Europe’s medieval centuries to its later Renaissance – the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when chemical processes became of interest to the more highly educated sort of alchemist  – so although some of the references for European studies listed below are not recent, they are still standard.

  • James R. Johnson, ‘Stained Glass and Imitation Gems’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Sep., 1957), pp. 221-224.

  • Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, ‘Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval Techniques, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp. 1-128. (Highly recommended)

  • William Eamon, ‘Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Science’, Sudhoffs Archiv, Bd. 69, H. 1 (1985), pp. 26-49.

  • _______________, ‘Science and Popular Culture in Sixteenth Century Italy: The “Professors of Secrets” and Their Books’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 471-485.

  • Erik Anton Heinrichs, ‘The Plague Cures of Caspar Kegler: Print, Alchemy, and Medical Marketing in Sixteenth-Century Germany’, The Sixteenth Century Journal Vol. 43, No. 2 (Summer 2012), pp. 417-440

  • Sven Dupré, ‘The value of glass and the translation of artisanal knowledge in early modern Antwerp’, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek (NKJ) / Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art , 2014, Vol. 64, Trading Values in Early Modern Antwerp. pp. 138-161.

jewellery gems fake spinel 1600s cheapside hoard

Newbold quotes Dante, (Inf., xxix, 118) in the Italian. One where one of the damned confesses,

Ma nell’ ultima bolgia delle diece
Me per Alchimia che nel mondo usai,
Dannò Minos, a cui fallir non lece.

“And thou shalt see I am Capocchio’s shade, / Who metals falsified by alchemy;/ Thou must remember, if I well descry thee,/ How I a skilful ape of nature was.” – Longfellow’s translation.

adding that “Dante mentions several persons who had recently been burned, either as alchemists or as would-be counterfeiters by alchemical means.”( Newbold’s lecture  .. p.455 n.27). That counterfeit gem, illustrated above, if sold as the real thing would have brought the maker several thousands of pounds, at a time when an English pound was worth a pound of gold.

The  practical nature of matter in ‘Books of secrets’ has long been recognised. Thorndike referred to the type in his ‘Voynich’ letter of 1921.  Members of Jim Reeds’ Voynich mailing list were aware of it in the late 1990s.  Nick Pelling says the same in his Curse of the Voynich (2006) but such was the glamour on the manuscript, and so eagerly was Wilfrid’s social-climbing narrative embraced that I can find no evidence that anyone has ever – in a century – looked into that quite reasonable possibility in connection with the Voynich text.

Not one researcher, though artisans made use of plants and painters, woodworkers, weavers, jewellers, makers of mosaics and embroiderers all formed non-literal images of plants and less-than-literal images for the heavens. 

As ever, the revisionist is compelled to wonder: ‘Why?” –  Why did no-one ask? Why did no-one check?

It may be that I find no evidence of such a study only because so few Voynicheros now think mention of precedent studies ‘necessary’ so if .you happen to know of someone who did look into that  question, I’d be delighted to hear which extant examples and texts they  considered.

Even for the constant presumption that Voynich plant-pictures  must fit within the Latins’ medicinal ‘herbal’ tradition there is no good reason and still no real evidence (pace Clemens).  If one were inclined to invent theoretical Voynich narratives, it would be easy enough to argue everything  in Beinecke MS 408  an artisan’s handbook or notebook.

 Practical skill = practical value.

Such information could even be imagined recorded in  cipher. The huge importance of weavers, dyers, glass makers and painters, within and without medieval Europe, for a town’s economic and social survival meant that trade secrets mattered everywhere. More – and as I’ll show (in Part c for this topic) –  books of alchemy and of magic didn’t disdain such  information as that about plant-derived pigments.  Here’s a nice short video about an exhibition of alchemical texts and paintings, entitled – a little loosely – ‘Books of Secrets’

https://www.sciencehistory.org/books-of-secrets-writing-and-reading-alchemy

Access to secrets – relocation.

Trade secrets passed over generations, in some cases millennia, only from father to son, and from master to apprentice, because those ‘family secrets’ were the key to survival for the family, the community and in some cases for an entire clan. Disturbance or removal of craftsmen could see a complete loss of some technical know-how.   So, we are told by Clavijo, at about the time the Voynich manuscript was made, that when Timur (Tamerlane) descended on a city to destroy it,  he spared few but the useful artisans, whom he forcibly relocated to his new capital in Samarkand. It was the most efficient way to acquire that knowledge.

image – The rape of Damascus.

Timur at Damascus

“From Damascus he brought weavers of silk, and men who made bows, glass and earthenware… From Turkey he brought archers, masons, and silversmiths.”  From Azerbaijan, Isfahan and Delhi and from Shiraz the mosaic-workers all in such numbers that “the city was not large enough to hold them.”  (Clavijo’s round trip from Spain to Samarkand  took three years.

  • Guy Le Strange, Clavijo. Embassy to Tamerlane 1403-1406 (New York and London: Harper, 1928).

To speak of textiles –  how to dye cloth was known for millennia before the first  revelation, to the European public, of those secrets which were issued in Venice, in print, in 1429.  In his introduction, the anonymous master dyer says he had the information published because he had no-one to whom he could pass  on his knowledge.   One suspects that the dyers’ guild was less than pleased. 

  • [Anonymous author, Venice] Mariegola dell’ arte de tentori.

for additional vocabularies:

  • Violetta Thurston, The Use of Vegetable Dyes (Dryad Press). A small, modest, excellent work. First published in 1975 it achieved its fourteenth, hardback, edition by 1985. I recommend its use in tandem with

  • Mrs. M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal The Medicinal, Culinary, Cosmetic and Economic Properties, Cultivation and Folk-Lore of Herbs, Grasses, Fungi, Shrubs & Trees with their Modern Scientific Uses. (first published in 1931).

A version of Grieve’s Modern Herbal is available online through botanical.com but I’d advise consulting the full, printed text.

Secrets of such a kind were also transferred in less direct ways before the sixteenth century-   through the private channels of commerce and, one suspects, sometimes through coercion or an individual’s violence. A miniature painted in Bruges, in c.1375 shows a group of Latins – some dressed in damascene cloth – around a dyer’s vat while a wooden-faced or shocked Syrian or Jew stands behind them. Two more figures, similarly portrayed are in the street, looking on with consternation. One has his fist clenched; the other holds his hand to his face – a sign for lamentation.

dyeing 15thC red damask Jews lament

dyers consternation

Again, in Italy during the 1300s, Guelf dyers had been obliged to flee Lucca.

They took refuge in Venice, bringing about a massive boost to that city’s economy, and supplementing its earlier acquisition of silk-weaving techniques, including the different design of loom. (silk cannot bear the weight of the ordinary loom’s downward pressing beater).  At about the same time, what was then called ‘brazilwood’ or ‘sappan wood’ (usually but not only from  Caesalpinia sappan) was gained from India and southern Asia [called in Europe the ‘east Indies’] and is attested in England as early as 1321, though to use it one also had to know how to prepare the dye, and what mordants to use, and in the region that is now Indonesia, this had been a special skill  of women. 

Grieve has ‘sappan’ as one of the synonyms for Red Saunders (Pterocarpus santalinus) op.cit.. p.171.

The cloth trade was soon to become England’s leading industry and it is said that by the close of the middle ages, as many as one in seven of the country’s workforce was probably making cloth, and one household of every four involved in spinning. 

Similarly,  Germany began cultivating woad, whose traditional method of preparation is not anything one might  guess. Individual people had to bring those secrets. A good  article about ‘brazilwood’ pigments:

  • Medieval Indonesia (blog), ‘Brazilwood in the Fifteenth Century: Italy and Sunda’. (Feb 19, 2020).

As ever, mystery was not far from ‘occult’.

starry band stretched

 

Folio 67v

Bringing this matter of colours and pigments to our study, we take the example of a curious use of green pigment in folio 67v.  Relevant to our  understanding of thie diagram’s astronomical reference,  this anomaly obliges us to consider  too, the cultural significance of colour for the manuscript’s fifteenth-century scribe or painter.

The research question is framed as:

Q: When modern science asserts there are no truly ‘green’ stars visible to the naked eye, why should a few stars in one Voynich diagram be made green?

Note – the current Beinecke scans are more bleached out than the earlier ones were. Today, on the Beinecke website, these stars look blue-grey.  

67v green stars full gif

.. Continued in the next post.

 

Specialist opinions – notes to Panofsky’s comments of 1932.

Header Illustration: detail from an astrolabe dated c.1400, showing month-names in Picard orthography.  illustrated by David A. King in Ciphers of the Monks: a forgotten notation system (2001). See also clip at the end of this post.
Two posts previous:

– – NOTES to Panofsky’s 1932 assessment, grouped by subject —

Notes  5, 6, 7, & 11    re: ‘Spanish’/”provincial French’ calendar month-names. Occitan; Catalan; Judeo-Catalan)

IN 1932, Panofsky said the manuscript seemed to him to be from ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and that “the names of the months … undoubtedly by a later hand, seem to suggest Spanish”; while in 1954, answering Friedman’s Q.7, he described those (later-added) calendar’s month-names as ‘provincial French’.  The two are not necessarily incompatible, and while it has become the custom today to suppose the month-names  Occitan, southern dialects – on which I concentrate here – include a range of  Occitan-affected variants, merging with Catalan-related forms near the border and – as example – in old Genoese.  The map shows the general range for various Occitan-related dialects. I would also mention that while here I am only concerned to elucidate Panofsky’s thinking, some researchers (e.g.  Thomas Sauvaget), do not think the month-names are in a southern dialect at all. There is also the curious, recurring hint of some link between the month-names and (northern) Picardy or at least to some PIcard scribe/s living c.1400.  The last element, so-far unexplained, occurs again in my last Comment in this post.

For any revisionist who might be interested, the dialect and orthography of the month-names still deserves careful study and I add a starting-list of references. However, as I said, this post is about Panofsky’s localisation of the manuscript. and his view of the month-names.

Dialect map courtesy of Quora

Pelling in 2009, thought the month-names’ dialect might be that of Toulouse, while in 2011  a Catalan named Arthur Sixto put the case for Catalan.

  •  ‘Old Occitan‘ – brief wiki article recommended for its bibliography.
  • Notes on ‘Occitan’ included in  ‘Military cryptanalysts: Panofsky’s responses of 1954‘ (January 19th., 2019) in Comments to Q 7.
  • Pierre Bec, ‘Occitan’ in Rebecca Posner and John N. Green, Language and Philology in Romance (1982).  pp.115-130. Technical, philological. Good maps.
  • a resource for comparing medieval French orthographies: Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (1330-1500)
  • for Anglo-Norman (which gives  e.g. septembre; setembre, setumbre).

Spanish dialects affected by Arabic in regions also affected by Catalan and Genoese see.

re: Genoese (locally called zeneize).

  • Carrie E. Beneš (ed.),  A Companion to Medieval Genoa, (Vol. 15 in the series: Brill’s Companions to European History).
  • Schiaffini, A. (1929). Il mercante genovese nel medio evo e il suo linguaggio. Genoa, Italy: SIAG

the reference to Schiaffini I owe to Franz Rainer, ‘The Language of the Economy and Business in the Romance Languages‘, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics.

The case for Catalan –  Sixto, Ridura and Erica

Details

I’ve quoted Artur Sixto‘s comment before, but here for convenience:

“To me the months [names] seem to correspond slightly better to Catalan than Occitan. June for instance, spelled with “ou” corresponds to Catalan pronunciation, in French writing. “ny” would be Catalan relative to Occitan “nh” or French/Italian “gn”. So the person might have ties with the North of Catalonia (and could have a French influence) …. Interestingly, many Jews in Catalonia spoke Catalanic, a Catalan dialect close to Shuadit, i.e. Judaeo-Provençal (i.e. Judaeo-Occitan).”

-comment made to ciphermysteries (February 17, 2011).

Soon after, Sergei Ridura left a further comment (February 17, 2011). Translated, it reads in part..“It is possible that MS-408 was owned by some Catalan, possibly in Naples, since … there is a word that is more typical of Italian than  Occitan..”

Why Ridura chose Naples, I don’t know. I should have thought Genoa more likely, since Genoese is recognised as having more in common with Occitan and Catalan than with Italian. In addition, Genoa had constant connection with the Occitan and Catalan-speaking centres as a consequence of Genoa’s monopoly of that sea-route, which then extended around the peninsula to England and Flanders.  in the map below, Genoa’s routes in orange; Venice’s in dark green.

detail of map from Farrellworldcultures wiki site

However – Ridura’s comment, and Sixto’s were made to this post at ciphermysteries.

So again, thoughts shared by Erica that Pelling published on Nov. 24th., 2018 under a post about ‘quire numbers‘.(link is to a copyright image from Pelling’s book of 2006).

Here’s what Erica had said:

Nick, I think that what you call a 9 is actually an “a”. This seems to correspond with the way we abbreviate numerals in Spanish: (I start with quire 4) 4ta (cuarta), 5ta (quinta), 6ta (sexta), 7ma (septima) 8va (octava), 9na (novena), 10ma (decima) etc. The “a” indicates that the noun being modified by the numeral adjective is feminine. If it was masculine, you would use an o as in cuarto, quinto, sexto, etc (4to, 5to, 6to). I think the 9 shaped a is an “a” occurring in a final position in a word. This same symbol is also found throughout the manuscript’s cipher alphabet (also almost always occurring in a final position?) Something to think about. Also note that the 8th quite reads 8ua. Back then “u” was used instead of “v”…..

comment to ciphermysteries (November 24, 2018). (Pelling’s interpretation of the non-standard forms is that while thinking in Latin, the scribe “was actually writing … an ugly mixture of Arabic numerals and late medieval -9 Latin abbreviations: pm9, 29, 39, 49, 5t9, 6t9, 7m9, 8u9, 9n9, 10m9, 11m9, [12 missing], 139, 149, 159, [16 missing], 179, [18 missing], 19, 20.”

Note: I have always found Pelling’s site a valuable resource when hunting the origin and/or precedents for a well-disseminated idea. HIs posts are helpful, not least for their accurate documentation- which can help limit the ‘ground-hog day’ phenomenon – and because Pelling still allows opinions to be aired that imply doubt about his views.  (Not that his belief in free expression inhibits his own!). Pelling’s site, and  Reeds’ mailing list and bibliography, have proven most helpful to mapping the origin of current opinions about the manuscript, and I expect to refer to them often.
  • Variant forms within Catalan. See e.g. ‘Mallorcan, Menorcan, Ibizan and Formenteran‘, Rio Wang (Oct. 7th., 2010)
  • and for other mentions of Catalan and Occitan, of course, consult Jim Reeds’ mailing list (see cumulative bibliography Page).

Before any discussion about Erica’s thought could occur, it was so vigorously rejected by another contributor that she withdrew it, apologetically.  It happens too often that a potentially interesting line of thought is being quashed in this way, as if whatever does not serve a currently-popular theory becomes  “off topic” by definition.

Obviously, a Spanish- or a  ‘Catalan’ discussion might develop along lines which raise doubt about other theories – honestly and deeply believed by those promoting them – but  silencing a discussion by adopting a tone of absolute authority is pure ‘Wilfridism’. In this case, what are usually seen as ‘quire marks’ in Latin style may be so, and are widely supposed so, but it is not beyond question. And, after all,  Erica is Spanish, just as Sixto and Ridura are Catalan. Presumably they have reasons for their views, ones which may be considered and reasonably debated, but others deserve the chance to engage with them.

Apropos of quire signatures, it’s certainly ‘off-topic’ here, but it should be noted that their location and style differs between regions and periods, and so they too serve as aids to provenance. I have chosen this extract because written by the Beinecke librarian (later Vice-Provost) who wrote the catalogue entry for Beinecke MS 408. The first edition of her book appeared in 1991.

Note on Andorra – spoke Catalan before Catalonia at large:

“While the Catalan Pyrenees were embryonic of the Catalan language at the end of the 11th century Andorra was influenced by the appearance of that language where it was adopted by proximity and influence even decades before it was expanded by the rest of the Crown of Aragon”.

The local population based its economy during the Middle Ages in livestock and agriculture, as well as in furs and weavers. Later, at the end of the 11th century, the first iron foundries began to appear in Northern Parishes like Ordino, much appreciated by the master artisans who developed the art of the forges, an important economic activity in the country from the 15th century. wikipedia article.

Ramón Llull the Majorcan, father of literary Catalan.

The speech of Majorca has been recognised as separate from, though related to, Catalan.  Despite this, Lull’s treaties on philosophy, the sciences and poetry have seen him regarded as the father of literary Catalan.

When  ‘name-an-author’ was still an regular aspect of the Voynich manuscript’s study, as it was for a century, several persons (including Petersen) wondered if it might have been written by Ramón Lull. The idea was floated before the NSA’s involvement, but still circulated during those years (1944-1978) and has since re-emerged periodically.

Comment

Nothing has ever come of the idea to my knowledge and most discussions involving Llull have been driven by the assumption that the text is enciphered (which may be so, but it is not proven); or that Llull invented an artificial language and/or wrote in cipher (which ideas I’ve never seen supported by evidence);  or by a curious – because anachronistic – focus on the figure of Rudolf II, who as you may know is alleged by just one, fairly insubstantial (and never substantiated) item of second-hand hearsay to have bought our less-than-royal-standard manuscript for a fantastic price at some time between 1583-1612.

We know only that the name of a physician ennobled by Rudolf was at some time inscribed on the manuscript’s first folio. The inscription has never been suggested written in Rudolf’s hand and it is a foolish assumption to suppose that every book owned by anyone coming near Rudolf must once been his.   My (minority) opinion of the ‘Rudolf’ rumour – whose only source is exactly the same as that for the ‘Roger Bacon’ notion – is as Salomon’s judgement on the latter:

short list of Lull-Voynich references
  • from Les Enluminures website (Item sold but images still available online at present)L

RAMON LLULL, Ars brevis, and Ars abbreviata praedicanda, versio latinus II   In Latin, decorated manuscript on paper, Southern Netherlands, c. 1490-1550; and Germany, c. 1490-1520

  • The three references in d’Imperio, Elegant Enigma (open in a new tab to enlarge)

The Ferguson Collection at the University of Scotland includes many of Llull’s works.

Jacques Guy mentioned on the first Voynich mailing list (Wed, 12 Jun 1996) that one Llull MS in that collection was owned by Wilfrid Voynich. Guy lists it correctly as Glasgow University Ferguson MS 192, but the website address he gave is now out of date.  It is currently: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/manuscripts/search/detail_c.cfm?ID=44369

Guy, quoting the catalogue description, dated that manuscript to the 15thC, and noted that the north Italian scribe is named in MS. 76 as “John Visio”.

Lull was a desultory subject in that mailing list, chiefly in relation to themes of artificial language and cipher.

Joao Leao considered him, together with Hildegarde of Bingen (who had also been considered earlier by Manly and Petersen).  See e.g. Leao’s post of 24 Aug 1994.

On Thurs, 30 Oct 1997 Jorge Stolfi mentions that one of Llull’s books contains moveable paper wheels “to help the reader generate word pairs”.

Such forms are sometimes called ‘preaching wheels’ today (cf. Rota Virgili). Their purpose was to aid  retention and retrieval of texts committed to memory – in an age largely reliant on memorisation. Their heyday was the thirteenth century.   Technically, the ‘rota Virgili’ referred to (as it were) changing gears, from less to more elevated forms in oratory, but the ‘peachers wheels’ came to be popularly referred to by the same term. (Added note on the formal and informal use of the phrase ‘rota Virgili’ added Nov. 11th., 2021).

On diagrams of this type and Llull – see especially:

  • Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (second, revised and updated second edition 2008) pp. 329-338.

NOTE: It is a reflexive habit for modern Voynicheros to imagine that subtlety and complexity of thought had ‘evolved’ as European culture aged, but this is very far from the reality, and I would strongly recommend for those whose only knowledge of medieval attitudes is passing acquaintance with digitised manuscripts,  that they should read cover-to-cover Carruther’s Book of Memory as a crash-course in medieval Europe’s “ways of seeing”.

Other references:

In general, the English and Scots seem to have cared  most for Llull’s Ordre of Chyvalry, translated and printed by William Caxton from a French version of Ramon Lull’s ‘Le libre del ordre de cavayleria’ together with Adam Loutfut’s Scottish Transcript (British Library, MS Harley 6149), ed. by Alfred T. P. Byles (London: Early English Text Society, 1926), pp. xxvi-xxx [concerns the texSt at ff. 83-109 in Brit.Lib. MS Harley 6149. The foregoing from the British Library catalogue entry].

Note on Judeo-Catalan and Judeo-Occitan/Judeo-French. (and Picard).

There has been some debate about whether Judeo-Catalan existed, a current wiki article (tagged ‘this has multiple issues’) asserts it did not.  I have not looked into the question. though I note the following paper can be downloaded from academia.edu.  If read online, the automatic translator does a fair job if you don’t have Spanish.

entry for ‘‘Cervera’ in the Encyclopaedia Judaica includes the following:

An inventory from 1422 suggests familiarity of Jews with Judeo-Arabic philosophy and Greco-Arabic sciences. That this was typical of Catalan communities in general we can deduce from another library that originated in Perpignan and ended up in Cervera in 1484. The discovery of some sources in Hebrew and Judeo-Catalan has immensely enriched our knowledge of the Jews of Cervera. 

That article has no footnotes; bibliographic references are abbreviated.

An paper published in 1947 suggested that while Jews in medieval France spoke the vernacular as a matter of course, Jews did not necessarily know the Latin scribal conventions.  I include this chiefly for its reference to a Picard in association with an astronomical work (because it has been noted by many since Pelling* first mentioned it, and independently found by more than one later writer  – I can think of Don Hoffmann and the late Stephen Bax offhand – that the closest orthography we have for the Voynich calendar’s month-names occurs on an astronomical instrument made in Picardy and discussed by David King in his Cipher of the Monks: a forgotten notation system. (2001).  I add a clip at the end of this post.

*Pelling first….‘  or so I had thought, but today cannot see a post about it on ciphermysteries.

In 1947 Levy wrote,

There is only one document extant in Old French that is to be attributed to a Jew. At Malines in 1273 Hagin le Juif translated the astrological treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra from Hebrew into French. He did it at the behest of his patron, Henry Bate, who wanted to render it into Latin.  Even so, it was not Hagin who wrote it down. He was forced, by his calligraphical inability [i.e. to write formal Latin style], to dictate the translation to a Christian scribe, Obert de Montdidier. While the language makes this work an integral part of the Judeo-French genre, the dialectal peculiarities reflect the Picard origin of the scribe.

  • from: Raphael Levy, ‘The Background and the Significance of Judeo-French’, Modern Philology, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Aug., 1947), pp. 1-7.
  • On medieval Picard orthography and pronunciation see catalogue commentary to Brit.Lib. MSs Additional 10292, 10293 and 10294.

A reference often mentioned in the scholarly literature, and which discusses the Greek element in Judeo-Catalan is:

  • Paul Wexler, Three Heirs to a Judeo-Latin Legacy: Judeo-Ibero-Romance, Yiddish and Rotwelsch (1988). Wexler does not ascribe this element to the dispersal of Jews from formerly Byzantine Sicily or southern Italy, nor to the often repeated statement that before the revival of Hebrew from purely liturgical language to one in daily use, Greek had been the lingua franca of Mediterranean Jews.

For the very keenest linguists, papers fifteen and sixteen may be of interest, from

  • Yedida K. Stillman, George K. Zucker (eds.), New Horizons in Sephardic Studies (SUNY Press, 2012)

Next post: further notes to Panofsky’s original assessment in 1932.