Header image – detail from a portrait of Gian Francesco II Gonzaga.
STOP PRESS (Feb. 6th., 2020) – anyone who decided to check out the ‘horoscopic charts’ rumour… you can drop it. A specialist in the history of astrology, astronomy and cosmology has just said plainly that that the Voynich month-folios do not accord with any type of ‘horoscopic chart’.
I’m waiting on his permission to quote and instructions on his preferred form for the acknowledgement.
I guess whoever dreamed up that “horoscopic charts” fiction – sorry, ‘theory’ – just didn’t care too much if it was true or not.
The ‘Skies above’ series so far.. transmission affect
We have seen that in Mediterranean art, and then in that of western Europe to 1438, representation of the unclothed female body occurs within certain definable limits both in terms of regions and of eras and further that Panofsky had pointed out – rightly, and as early as 1932 – that in the art of western Christian Europe (i.e. ‘Latin’ Europe) the unclothed ‘shapely’ female form does not occur until the fifteenth century.
In 1932, while he still presumed the whole to be (as Wilfrid had asserted since 1912) the work of a single western author, Panofsky altered his date for the manuscript from ‘perhaps’ the thirteenth century on to the first decades of the fifteenth, precisely because of its ‘shapely ladies’ and its palette, as Anne Nill reported:
[on first seeing the copy, Panofsky] became intensely interested and seemed to think the MS. early, perhaps as early as the 13th century … but as he came to the female figures in connection with the colours used in the manuscript he came to the conclusion that it could not be earlier than the 15th century!
However, and before the manuscript had been radiocarbon dated, Panofsky had woken to the possibility that the date for composition of the content and that for manufacture of our present manuscript might be separated by a considerable (if unspecified) length of time – in other words, that it was not an autograph at all. He actually widened the implied gap between content and manufacture in what John Tiltman reports as a direct communication – presumably offered in the 1950s but some time after Panofsky’s meeting with Friedman.
In a later paper, Tiltman writes,:
Professor Panoffsky [sic.] and the keeper of the manuscripts at the Cambridge Library both independently insisted on a date within 20 years of 1500 A.D., and [that] the manuscript as we have it may be a copy of a much earlier document.
[pdf] John Tiltman, ‘The Voynich manuscript: “the most mysterious manuscript in the world”‘ (1968).p.10.
Had the manuscript been both manufactured and first composed “within twenty years of 1500” it might (in theory) have been possible, still, to argue the “shapely ladies” sections, including the month-folios, a product of Latin culture, but Panofsky clearly considered the content ‘much’ older than 1480-1520 and having as we now do, a radiocarbon range of 1404-1438 and understanding that the clothing in our present copy is a late addition to it, so the implication is unavoidable that the ‘ladies’ folios had their origins somewhere else. “Much earlier” does not mean a few decades; in contemporary usage, in this context, it implied the content’s origin “centuries older” – taking us back to before the fifteenth century and emergence of shapely unclothed female forms in western European art. I agree – although, for reasons explained in the post of January 10th, I do ascribe the ‘lewd’ additions to the month-folios to some later draughtsman during the last quarter of the fifteenth century.
The implication of Panofsky’s statements when considered in sequence, went unnoticed and in 2009 even to speak of the work as a compendium whose material the copyists had from different exemplars was to meet with uproar and derision, as the present writer discovered. Only during the past four of five years have we seen a lessening of the old emphasis on ‘the author” and growing (if oscillating) acceptance of the manuscript as a compilation..
Traditionalists had simply assumed the manuscript an autograph – that is a manuscript inscribed by a single ‘author’ – because there had always been ‘an author’ in the Wilrid-Friedman tradition, and, until a few years ago, “naming the Latin author” was still the chief preoccupation. For the core-conservatives, who emerged in the early 2000s, and gained an increasingly louder voice from 2010, there had to be an ‘author’ and preferably one who was ‘central European’ and connected in some way to the Imperial line. The cryptographers wanted ‘an author’ for different reasons, chiefly because Friedman had framed engagement with the manuscript in terms of a battle of wits between himself and some brilliantly ingenious Renaissance male. The type certainly existed. See e.g.
For the revisionist, though, the more important point is that any substantial gap between first enunciation of an image and its subsequent copying provides evidence of transmission and this can be very helpful in establishing origin for the first enunciation and thus the image’s intended meaning. Of what this may imply for the written part of this text, we’ll speak later. Much depends on whether a section’s written text is as old as first enunciation of its images.
Shifts from one historico-cultural context to another leaves evidence of that event even if the older image is one revived in the same region. Think ‘gothic revival’ for an obvious example. In the same way, a Roman copy of a classical Greek statue will evince both the maker’s ‘Roman’ character and that the model had been made by an older Greek; in a nineteenth century Englishman’s copy of an Egyptian image we see both the nineteenth-century Englishman’s way of seeing and a hint of the Egyptian scribe’s. ‘Ways of seeing’ are the result of a specific time, place and community and are extremely difficult to erase, replace, or imitate precisely .. as any forger will tell you. The later copy points us to the earlier place and time of origin… if you know what you’re looking at.
(and this, by the way, is where most theoretical narratives for the Voynich manuscript fail; they assume the images infinitely compliant – as Aztec one day, German the next, Italian the day after, or sixteenth-century or nineteenth century…)
Very little of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery “reads” easily for people accustomed to our present, European, tradition – because the majority aren’t expressions in that tradition. Conversely, the reason that some few details – such as the late-added clothing, the central emblems of the month-folios, or the supposed ‘castle’do seem accessible and for that very reason have received attention massively in excess of the percentage they represent.
To recognise evidence of transmission is rarely as simple as recognising the difference between Opus Francigenum and ”gothic revival‘ and requires the viewer to know enough to recognise the significance of small details – which is exactly why forgers still manage to fool enough people, enough of the time, to make fortunes. The important thing is that the copyist should have attempted to copy, rather than to replace or re-express the images from his exemplar. We are fortunate that, in the Voynich manuscript, most of the images appear to be driven by a desire to copy with near facsimile exactitude. I say ‘most’ because we have to deal with various layers, some post-dating the vellum’s range and a few (chiefly in the bathy- section) where the copyist had thought he could improve on the original. The rapidity with which that hand vanishes re-inforces the overall sense that the initial desire of those involved in the fifteenth-century copy was to have everything copied exactly. (The couple of ‘improvements’ in the bathy- section might, conceivably, also be due to some term’s being ambiguous as e.g. ‘passage’, ‘basin’ or ‘channel’).
Then we see a different attitude affect the work – the one I call the ‘prude’.
Chronological layers. Separating layers of transmission affect is akin to the archaeologists’ removing a site’s levels of occupation and is similarly described as strata: in this case, chronological strata because one may assume changes in cultural context always attend the passage of time.
In this series, I’ve already mentioned some discernible strata. As I read it, the sequence maps – counting down from the latest/uppermost:
#1 – (Last quarter of the fifteenth century. post-production). the ‘lewd’ additions.
My reason for assigning these details – not all of which are lewd in themselves – to the last quarter of the fifteenth century were explained in the post of January 10th., 2020.
In this context I might repeat an item from a couple of posts to Voynichimagery, namely that it might prove worthwhile to ask if there is any correlation between items so marked in the month-folios and the ‘Dies Aegyptiaci’.
At the time I wrote those posts I knew of no previous mention of that subject in Voynich studies – that is, no precedent – but afterwards a reader kindly let me know that someone had mentioned the topic “on the first mailing list or somewhere”. I regret not having had time to follow up that remark. For the record my posts to Voynich imagery were:1. D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Lamentable days’ voynichimagery.com (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017) and 2. ‘Lamentable days’ -Recommended reading’, voynichimagery.com (Tuesday, April 4th, 2017).Among the references I provided then were…
Ginzel, Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie , 1:204-12;
Sebastian Porceddu et al., “Evidence of Periodicity in Ancient Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18 (2008): 327-39
W. R. Dawson, “Some Observations on the Egyptian Calendars of Lucky and Unlucky Days,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 12 (1926): 260-64;
E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Magic (London, 1899), 224-228.
I bring up this point again here because at least one figure recovered from Naucratis shows an exaggerated pelt, comparable in its dimensions to that seen in the ‘Venus’ miniature in the Ambrosianus manuscript – and we must never forget that Georg Baresch believed the Voynich manuscript’s content was, in some sense, Egyptian. To quote from Neal’s translation of Baresch’s letter of 1637:
In fact it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts …. He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script. This is all the more plausible because the volume contains pictures of exotic plants which have escaped observation here in Germany.
Note – Neal reads Baresch’s phrasing as indicative of hypothesising but I read it as emphatic – “in fact, it is easily conceivable…’. this being Baresch’s reaction to Kircher’s dismissive response after receiving copied folios earlier sent by Baresch through a Jesuit known to both of them. Kircher had published an appeal to the public for materials helpful in Kircher’s efforts to explain Egyptian hieroglyphics.
On Naukratis see..
Alexandra Villing et.al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt (a British Museum Catalogue). see the Museum’s website.
The ‘Egyptian days’ are otherwise termed Dies aegri , -atri , –mali , -maledicti, -ominosi , -infortunati and -tenebrosi. Some of the Latin sources appear to be accurate; though others are wildly imaginative/theoretical.
folio 116v. It seems (at least to me) that a line of marginalia on folio 116v might belong to the same time (i.e. last quarter of the fifteenth century) and possibly to the same hand as the ‘lewd’ additions. According to Anton Alipov’s translation the writer of the marginalia on folio 116v was inclined to coarse expressions .
Stratum #2 – the ‘prude’. post-copying – possibly before binding ( c.1430)
It may be unfair to describe as a ‘prude’ the person who had some of the figures overlaid with heavy pigment. Whether he was the painter, or an overseer, he may have been merely of sensitive or modest disposition. Often called the ‘heavy’ painter, he is distinguished from the ‘light painter’ since Nick Pelling observed and commented on the distinction.
‘Light-‘ and ‘Heavy-‘ painter.
After drawing attention to the ‘heavy painter’ and ‘light painter’ painter in Reeds’ mailing list; Pelling spoke of the matter in his book (2006) and thereafter in various posts to his blog as e.g. this from 2017, in connection with ‘labellese’ and codiciological issues. While this passage sounds as if Pelling is speaking about the central emblems, he means any figures on the specified diagrams. I’ve added clarification in square brackets:-
To my mind, the most logical explanation for this is that the colourful painting on the light Aries [ i.e. April #1 diagram] was done at the start of a separate Quire 11 batch. That is, because Pisces [March-] and dark Aries [April #2] appear at the end of the single long foldout sheet that makes up Quire 10, I suspect that they were originally folded left and so painted at the same time as f69r and f69v (which have broadly the same palette of blues and greens) – f70r1 and f70r2 may therefore well have been left folded inside (i.e. underneath Pisces / f70v2), and so were left untouched by the Quire 10 heavy painter. Quire 11 (which is also a single long foldout sheet, and contains light Aries, the Tauruses, etc) was quite probably painted separately and by a different ‘heavy painter’: moreover, this possibly suggests that the two quires may well not have been physically stitched together at that precise point.
quoted from: Nick Pelling, ‘Voynich Labelese‘, ciphermysteries, September 3rd., 2017.
What Pelling had not realised was that his distinction sheds light on that broader issue of ‘authorship’.
Stratum #3 ‘The Modest’ clothing & the central emblems. (added in copying c. 1400-1430)
Before that final heavy overlay of pigment, some effort had been made to provide some of the bodies with covering using pen and light wash, but without altering the look of the limbs or obscuring the bodies’ form.
In my opinion, this pigment was added after completion of the original copy, but in all probability by the fifteenth-century copyists. I would not rule out the possibility that a precedent for the line-drawn clothing existed in the nearest exemplar (which I would date not later than the second or third quarter of the fourteenth century) but I’ll treat the style of this line-work in another post.
As I explained when treating the central emblems, in 2011-12, I think they are fifteenth-century additions gained from a tenth- or eleventh-century text available to the copyists, and preserved in Spain or in France, but in my view probably the latter and perhaps in Fleury. Just for the record I add details for two of my studies.
D.N. O’Donovan, ‘Of Fishes and Fleury’, voynichimagery, (Oct. 27th., 2012); ‘Crosseyed feline and red splash’ ibid (Oct. 29th., 2012).
Postscript – (Feb. 8th. 2020) A reader upbraids me… and it is true that I should have mentioned here that signs of alteration within the central emblems allowed me to date their adoption to the fifteenth century. I have explained this, with the historical, archaeological and literary evidence in posts to voynichimagery. There had been no analytical studies of the central emblems, but my conclusions failing to suit the traditionalist model, alternative efforts soon appeared. I would maintain, still, however that e.g. the standing archer figure had its origins in the eastern Mediterranean, came west in c.10th-11thC and was first adapted for Christian use in glass made for the new ‘gothic’ windows, but the form of its bow in the Voynich manuscript indicates a fifteenth-century adaptation, the bow being (as I explained from the usual sources) being a particular, light, wooden, double-lock crossbow used by marines and the type of mercenary recorded in the rolls for Calais as a ‘Saggitario’. The proverbial type continues to be known to as late as the the writings of Cervantes, he associating it with the earlier Aegean.
Since then, Koen Gheuens has provided a superb study of the way the calendar’s oddly formed ‘lobsters’ were disseminated from France through Alsace between the 13th-15thC. Gheuens begins with the books on astronomy which Scot produced in Sicily. It should be kept in mind, though, that before Scot went to Sicily, his study of mathematics and astonomy (including astrology) had been pursued in Canterbury and at the University of Paris, whence he travelled to Toledo and worked with the Toledo school of translators, completing in 1217 a translation of al-Bitruji’s .Kitāb al-Hayʾah, entitling his translation De motibus celorum. Moses Ibn Tibbon’s Hebrew translation was completed in 1259. In the works which Scot produced in Sicily are images whose details show him familiar with non-mainstream astronomical lore, usually described as ‘Berber’. Thus, connection to Scot is not inconsistent with Panofsky’s attributing the manuscript to ‘Spain or somewhere southern’ and believing it presented as a Jewish work. But do see:
Since 2012 there has been much put online which aims at illustrating German and/or French zodiacs, to support ‘national’ theories of the manuscript but Gheuens’ post is one of the few pieces of original analytical research. Darren Worley’s valuable work and his supplementary comments were published by the late Stephen Bax, whose site is now corrupted and all the comments erased.
Scot’s ‘de motibus‘ is included in a compilation (Brit.Lib. Harley MS 1) with a very tasty provenance. Here’s a detail.
items from northe
Clothing – dating and placing…
Much that has been written about the clothing is flawed by an idea that what is found in one time or place has occurred nowhere else. This idea infuses most of the ‘national’ theories for the Voynich manuscript, focused as they are more on asserting their theory proven by such means and choosing so narrow a range of comparative material that no other view is possible. There is also the habit of treating the heavy overpainting as if it can date or place the manuscript’s ‘national character’.
To show why such methods are flawed, I’ll provide a contrasting example and since the unclothed figures also include some with headwear, demonstrate the fact that headwear of similar types were to be found earlier and over a very wide geographic range. The few seen below show the padded band, the band-and-veil, and the ‘mural’ crown, in works from north Africa to northern India, and from the 4thC BC to 3rdC AD. In fact, it is the unclothed forms which tell us most about the text’s origin and character..
Upper register (left to right) Hellenistic figurine 3rdC BC; Indo-Greek sculpture Gandharan period; coin of Carthage 350-270 BC. detail from folio 80v. Lower register: detail from Louvre Ma590 ‘Three tyches’ dated c.160 AD
Header: detail from f.179 in Brit.Lib. MS Harley 4375/3, a translation of Valerius Maximus‘ Facta et Dicta Memorabilia (Memorable Doings and Sayings..); (inset) detail from a mosaic made in the region of Carthage 1st-2ndC AD, (a century or two after Sergius Orata lived). British Museum.
MINUS THE INSET, the image shown in the header illustrates one sentence from Book 9 of Valerius Maximus’ Facta et Dicta, viz:
C. Sergius Orata pensilia balinea primus facere instituit. quae inpensa a levibus initiis coepta ad suspensa caldae aquae tantum non aequora penetravit.(9.1.1)
As first published in English, from the translation by Samuel Speed. that paragraph and the next together read:
There are more recent translations, but Speed’s was the first to be published in English, and appeared four years after Athanasius Kircher’s death.
Excerpts from Valerius Maximus occur as early as the tenth century in the Latin west, and it is possible that the fifteenth-century conception of Orata’s ‘hanging baths’ pre-dates Nicolas de Gonesse‘s translation of Book 9. I’ve not looked at the earlier manuscripts. Any wanting to doing so might begin with:
Dorothy M. Schullian, ‘A Revised List of Manuscripts of Valerius Maximus’, Miscellanea Augusto Campana. Medioevo e Umanesimo 45 (1981), 695-728 (p. 708).
WHAT HAS THIS TO DO WITH THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT? (c.1770 wds)
In brief – nothing. At least nothing directly, but it has become the norm that imagery in this manuscript is compared with items from Latin European works which are prettier, easier to understand and much more luxurious than the Voynich manuscript itself, so I thought this would be an easy way to introduce the month-diagrams’ ‘ladies’ without causing sudden shock and the sort of unthinking remarks which shocked persons tend to make.
More to the point, it lets me establish three points from the outset:
that the image from the Harley manuscript cannot be argued any explanation for the month-diagrams, as I expect some might be eager to do, seeing it fitting neatly with certain other Voynich theories about ladies, baths, magic, plumbing and ‘central Europe’. But it won’t do, and explaining the fact may prevent researchers’ wasting their own time or adding to that confusion with which the study is already so beset.
that the fifteenth-century translators and illustrator should not be underestimated. Valerius speaks of Orata as a fish farmer, Pliny of Orata’s growing oysters. Despite the fifteenth-century translator and painter having put human figures in these baskets, it makes perfect sense in the “Orataean” context that they should have made them baskets, and not the stave-built barrel we see when medieval people are shown taking a modest bath. The painter has shown containers able to drain very readily rather than anything able to hold water for long enough to take a bath in the Latin style (Greek baths differed). I think Fagan has the right of it, and is largely in harmony with the thinking of those medieval translators and painter, for he says that Orata’s invention (pensilia balinea) had nothing to do with humans’ bathing. We do better to envisage Orata’s ‘suspended baths’ as a variant form of lift-net fishing [see image, below, left] and/or as being related to that practice, still-usual, by which shellfish are maintained alive after harvesting, immersed in fresh sea-water until fully grown and so purged of any contaminates before being cooked or sent to market. I suppose it is even possible the basket-full might have been dropped directly into heated water but in in any case, a light, rapidly-draining container – of netting or of woven sea-grass – would be entirely practical. The image below (right) proves it was. And where Valerius speaks chiefly of Orata’s fish-farming, Pliny dilates on his unfortunate interest in shellfish.
(The Harley painting is too early and insufficiently northern to be about ducking witches.)
That the landscaping efforts by Orata and his fellows in Campania must be seen in the context of the reputation which, at that time, adhered to the harbour of Byzantion and the Horn, just as it had for millennia before and to as late as the fifteenth century. The astonishing abundance of those waters was viewed as a wonder in the ancient and classical world and the same classical authors in whom fifteenth-century Latin Europe was so interested dilate on the subject. I quote from a couple of those sources later in this post. In a way scarcely conceivable now when our food supply is constant and arrives indifferent to seasons and without our labour, Byzantion’s bountiful supply of food from the sea was regarded with awe, the city’s commercial production of salted and pickled fish provided a large part of the city’s wealth, even in medieval times. Salt-dried and -pickled fish, but particularly the dried had been the mainstay of Roman armies and remained the principal food for those travelling by sea. A fish sauce called garum is believed the invention of Phoenicians or of Greeks, and although a late imperial Roman tax on salt saw garum production sink rapidly in those times, a century after the Voynich manuscript was made, Pierre Belon found “scarcely a shop without it” in Constantinople (formerly Byzantion and later Istanbul). Belon adds that it was all made in Pera (“Pere”) (p.78)
It made perfectly good sense, and good economic sense for Orata and his fellows to attempt to re-create that environment in the Bay of Naples.
Pierre Belon, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez et choses memorables trouvées en Grèce, Asie, Judée, Egypte, Arabie et autres pays étrangèrs (Paris, 1553). Published first in French and English, the Latin edition appeared in 1589. The reference is on p.8 of the 1553 edition. Belon visited Istanbul in c.1547-8.
a quick basic overview of trade, goods and taxes in medieval Constantinople is in Mark Cartwright’s article for the Ancient History Encyclopaedia. here.
I’m not suggesting that the tiered ladies of the Voynich month-diagrams are sea-food in disguise… but puzzling over the Harley image and its odd features led me to enquire further and, one thing leading to another as it tends to do, I was brought, eventually, to the point where I could conclude that the Voynich month diagrams had originally ‘spoken Greek’ and to identify the set of terms, and ideas, most relevant to the way the ‘bodies in barrels’ are depicted in folio 70v-i.
I exempt from this description of ‘Greek-speaking’ the diagrams’ central emblems. Not because it is impossible they also originated in a Greek-speaking environment but because they appear to be late additions to the material (after c.1330 but before 1438) by which time – as I was also able to conclude from other studies and enquiries of this manuscript – the greater proportion of material now in the Voynich manuscript had entered the Latins’ domain. This makes it more likely – if not certain- that the central emblems were taken from a source in some language familiar in those regions at the time; perhaps a Latin work, or one written in a western European vernacular, in Occitan, French, Anglo-Norman, Hebrew or a dialect of it.. or even Aramaic etcetera. More likely; not certainly but in 2011, I expressed the opinion that the central emblems may have been copied from a work then in Fleury but dating to c.10thC AD. (This was before mention of France became acceptable to the ‘central European’ theory-holders, for which change we must thank Ellie Velinska’s longstanding fascination with the Duc de Berry more than any body of objective evidence.)
What is certain is that when ‘matches’ are claimed for the month- diagrams by writers adducing some detail from a Latin manuscript, all but the sequence of central emblems is omitted from their efforts, and even when treating those, the more optimistic sort of Voynichero swans past indifferent, or oblivious, to points at which the proposed ‘match’ fails – historically, iconographically or technically. Here, once again, I must mention Koen Gheuens‘ work as exceptional because he has paid attention to (e.g.) the fact that the Voynich ‘scales’ are of a type quite unlike those pictured in the medieval Latin manuscripts or adduced by other Voynicheros.
The critical detail is a second and thinner crossbar threaded through the wider. It is very clear in the Voynich emblem, and although the example cited by Gheuens is not unambiguous – that is, one might argue that its knob and hook were fixed into the end of a solid bar rather than being the termini of a thinner rod threaded through the larger – nonetheless it is a creditable potential match and he deserves credit for accepting rather than waving away that problem of very different construction. The diagram you see below the scales in that pocket calendar records the hours of darkness and of daylight for the month of September. I’ll come back to to the curiously nomadic history of such calendars later in the series, but the fact is they hop about – between England and the Scandinavian countries at first, and then make their way inland after some time.
To my knowledge no-one has ever found a comparison for any of the Voynich month- diagrams. No-one had done so before Panofsky, and he could find none closer than those in the Libros… No closer comparison seems to have been found since. Nor have I offered one.
What I’ve done is draw conclusions about first enunciation and, thereby, intended significance. And this because, just as you can’t read a book by just looking at it you can’t read the ‘thousand words’ by just looking at a picture.
I think it quite possible, after doing that work, that the ‘labels’ for figures in the Voynich month diagrams may be place-names. And while it may be a natural assumption that, were this the case, the system invoked would be the generalised type of chorographic astrology, it should not be forgotten that between a star’s position on the celestial globe and that of a specific place on the terrestrial globe, correspondence can be literal, and very literal, practical types have known so from before Babylon’s first brick was laid. Every ancient literature in the world presumes the stars were made for nomads, farmers, herders and mariners. Not one supposed them made for astrologers.
Several of my readers have commented on the curious fact that, after I introduce some new item or conclusion such as that the labels might be place-names, the same proposal appears without mention of the source not long afterwards in one or another ‘Voynich’ venue, where it tends to be lightly tossed about as some random ‘idea’ which had just occurred to the participant regardless of the fact that several others know quite well where this ‘idea’ came from.
I’m afraid that a decade’s unremitting efforts on the part of one or two theorists has had its effect; to admit that you are among the hundred or so people who read each post, and one of the ninety or so who don’t mis-use the material has become a bit risky if you appreciate being among the peaceable. It is now ok to help yourself, but in public arenas ‘not done’ to do be honest and open about it. If you do, it is a dead cert. that someone will soon appear on the lists and try to show you the error of your ways.
But, as I say, to help yourself is perfectly acceptable – to those omnipresent few theory-touts, and to me. Where we differ is that I consider my research and its original observations and conclusions should be re-used with mention of my name, and they don’t. One understands their situation; it just messes things up if you’re getting everyone on board with your theory, to admit that half the new ‘ideas’ you use to inspire the crew have been lifted from work you don’t quite understand, other than it seems to undermine the theory. Getting fellow believers to work it up in new form. one consistent with your theory and so re-assign credits to fellow-believers surely does keeps everything nice, neat, homogeneous and attractive to visitors. But it cannot be called honest, or helpful to those more interested in the fifteenth-century manuscript than in stories woven about it.
Which is another of the reasons why, now that I’ve decided to put a little more online in treating these diagrams, I won’t providing just an illustrated precis and a short reading list as I did in posts to Voynichimagery. This time, I’m setting out, step by step, the process by which I finally gained the conclusions I did (though I’ll ‘telescope’ a little). I expect most will find it fairly hard-going – because it was – and I shouldn’t be surprised to lose a few theorists in the maze. 🙂
So – to the fifteenth-century depiction of C. Sergius Orata and ‘bodies in baskets’.
“Bodies in Baskets” – Part A
C. Sergius Orata
Modern scholarship has tended to look more to Pliny’s account of Orata but for our purpose, Valerius’ is the more valuable. Pliny wrote later, and was a military gent and a friend of the Emperor Vespasian, highly conservative in the Roman fashion and inclined to think Orata ‘orientally’ sensual and venal: “not quite one of us”. This bias is vented by speaking of little but Orata’s cultivating oysters (a little too close to the murex, perhaps?), and scarcely mentioning Orata’s fish-farming, on which Valerius concentrated. Nor does Valerius suggest a commercial motive as Pliny would do later.
Despite his name, Orata might indeed not have been quite ‘Roman’. At the time when he was most active in Campania (the region of Capua and the Bay of Naples) it was still chiefly Greek and Samite. Even a century later Strabo names Naples among the few remaining bastions of civilisation in the peninsula, the rest having succumbed in one way or another to – as Strabo puts it – the barbarian Romans.
Strabo, Geographia VI, 253 = VI.1.2)
The painter dresses Orata by combining conventions for an ‘oriental’ with faintly Byzantine overtones, but I do not think it due to his consulting any eastern ‘Byzantine’ – nor relying on artistic imagination.
On Byzantine ‘Greeks’ in medieval western Europe, a good brief overview:
It seems to me that, the painter being provided with Pliny’s comments in addition to those of Valerius, misconstrued Pliny’s second-to-last sentence, having failed to notice that Orata was no longer the subject. After a long passage about Orata, Pliny at the end shifts suddenly and swiftly from Orata, by way of Licinus, Philip and Hortensius, to Lucullus – another fish-fancier of Naples, though omitting that name in his second-to-last sentence, which translates as:
At which, Pompey the Great called him “Roman Xerxes” in his long robe.
Orata’s upper dress appears as if of shot silk,* and the ‘long robe’ is given by the painter to other eastern figures, including ‘Sardanapalus‘. Thus the ‘Persian’ of Naples, Lucullus, becomes the ‘oriental’ and not-quite-Roman, Orata. Yet the elegance with which the painter conveys by these means Orata’s social rank, ‘oriental’ tendency to luxury, and even a suggestion of the effete (the inclusion of a luxurious version of the Roman feminalia) is supremely elegant. The reader expecting a literal and historically-correct ‘portrait’ will be disappointed, but those who are aware of the degree to which medieval imagery is less illustration of a text than its reiteration will see how easily the image committed to memory might then be ‘re-read’ – its several devices allowing cultured, impromptu remarks on the subjects of fish, baths, and Sergius Orata according to Valentius and to Pliny.
*as samite? By the late medieval period, samite had come to be “applied to any rich, heavy silk material which had a satin-like gloss”.
The sentences where Pliny shifts from discussing Orata also explain his concentrating on Orata’s oysters: Pliny knew of Roman nobles who weren’t to be supposed ‘oriental’ or effete, and they (sadly misled) had also raised fish.
In those same days, but somewhat before Orata, Licinius Murena devised pools and stewes to keep and feed other types of fish, and his example being followed by certain noblemen , they did likewise – namely Philip and Hortensius. Lucullus cut through a mountain near Naples for this purpose – that is, to bring an arm of the sea into his fish-pools, the cost of doing more than the house he had built. At which, Pompey the Great called him ” Roman Xerxes” in his long robe….
-which shows that Pompey knew his Herodotus. And that Pliny was thinking of the Bosporus in connection with this behaviour.
It is true that by conventions of Byzantine art, red boots were a mark of any eminent personage, including kings of whom nothing more was known than references in the Biblical narratives.
Red boots – Medes, Persians, Romans and Byzantines
A good, brief up-to-date account of Byzantine Greeks in early fifteenth-century Italy:
On the significance and history of red boots, which subject specialists in Roman history still debate with surprising warmth:
***Maria G. Parani, Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography 11th-15th Centuries (Brill: 2003)***
Specifically for the controversy over red calceusmulleus, see Ryan’s notes:
Francis X. Ryan, Rank and Participation in the Republican Senate (1998) pp.55-6 and notes.
Irfan Shahîd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, Volume 2, Part 2 (1995) passim esp. pp. 161-168.
The boots given Orata may, or may not, be ‘Byzantine’ but his hat was never worn in Constantinople – or if ever, not after the 3rdC AD. It is another of those ‘speaking devices’, a conventional bit of visual shorthand, of a type widely used in medieval imagery.
Headwear of such a sort appears with variations in medieval art as token for the ‘easterner’ and, in this form, chiefly as sign of the eastern Egyptian or Jew. The version shown (left) has its crown-like brim less strongly indented than Orata’s is, but this mounted figure is meant for a younger Moses, as prince of Egypt and overseer of Jews’ labour. (Note that the roughly parallel lines used for the horses’ manes is not the technique we call ‘parallel hatching’).
discarding bad habits:Wrecking-rocks of literalism and the whirlpool of pareidolia.(900 wds)
In terms of iconography there is a major difference between the Voynich ‘ladies in barrels’ and the detail from that fifteenth century manuscript picturing Orata and the ‘bodies in baskets’.
A modern, western reader who has no Latin may well consider Orata’s hat and costume odd and the elevated tubs odder still, but it would not require group effort, for more than a century, to make sense of the image overall. It is immediately plain to us that we are to interpret those figures of men and women literally; that the tubs are to be read as bath-tubs, and whatever bewilderment might be felt about the purpose of that image, the image itself is comprehensible. We do not speculate about whether, perhaps, Orata is sitting in a tent watching clouds pass and imagining them baskets. We are not so bewildered by our inability to read its intended meaning that we resort to asserting it the work of a sex-crazed, foolish, immature, or deliberately deceitful person attempting wantonly to conceal from us the information to which we have no key within our existing range of knowledge and experience.
That so many, on realising their inability to read imagery in the Voynich manuscript, have resorted to such means to avoid admitting nothing comes to mind which lets them make sense of a drawing or a diagram, and leads them to invent off-the-cuff excuses and rationalisations (even to the point of delusion in asserting that what is so plainly not an ordinary expression of medieval western culture IS an ordinary expression of Latin culture) simply expresses the normal range of human reactions when presented with something entirely unlike anything in the individual’s existing experience and mental repertoire. That Panofsky could not only recognise his own lack of comparisons but openly say so, is a remarkable thing; for a human being in general but for an eminent specialist in the field of medieval Latin art even more so. He was not prevented from seeing accurately by any fear of losing face. That’s very rare.
As humans it is an innate and universal habit when confronted with a new thing, word or person to immediately hunt our range of knowledge for some comparison for it: this is how we learn language, identify faces in crowds and so on. It is how we learn a second language – by finding parallels from the one already known. It is how we change a stranger’s status to that of friend: we liken their face, character or habits to ones familiar to us. But when our existing repertoire returns a ‘null result’ to that instant and instinctive search, natural responses veer between panic, dislike, suspicion, self-deception or a feeling experienced as boredom-distaste, to (by far the rarest) an intelligent curiosity: a desire to widen our own repertoire to a point where the hitherto unparalleled phenomenon is contextualised and in that way becomes among things ‘familiar’ to us. Consider how people react to a piece of abstract expressionism and you’ll get the idea.
Or perhaps a better illustration is the way European scientists reacted on receiving the first specimen of an Australian platypus. There was no one creature known to European science with which the creature could be compared, no genera or species to provide its context. So the scientists (naturally) compared it, as best they could, with what they did feel comfortable with: they saw the bill as a ‘duck’s bill’, the tail as ‘like a beaver’, the feet as ‘like an otter’… and concluded the specimen a fake, made by stitching together bits of a duck, a beaver and an otter. Naturally. Just so, those only comfortable with some aspect of European history and culture form their ‘Voynich theories’ within those same parameters, and then hunt only within their comfort zone (sometimes as limited as one medium and one small locality) for items which they might ‘match’ to some detail in the manuscript.
The aim in such cases is not to elucidate the original, but to claim it ‘not really unfamiliar’; stylistics are ignored; context; no effort made to explain (for example) a whole theme or even a whole diagram, detail by detail or to test theories or alleged matches against what is known about history or art or codicology or palaeography or … anything else. Classic example: the [so-called apothecary jar] container from the Vms supposedly ‘compared’ with the printed image of a German Christian ritual vessel. This is pareidolia. And over-literalism, too. It serves just one purpose, to offer a subliminal advertisement for a ‘Latin-German Christian’ theory. Which is not to say that whoever devised the ‘pairing’ did not believe it themselves. Comfort-zone.
Once the European scientists’ own horizons widened, once they set about to learn more, their personal, innate, instinctive, panic-responses ceased. They no longer needed to insist the thing was ‘really’ familiar, because they had worked to become familiar with the context in which it belonged in fact. Since this understanding cured the ‘null’ reaction, the natural and essentially defensive responses were no longer needed. They could see the thing as it was without stress and without the equally instinctive urge to express hostility to the provider of that first disturbing specimen. They stopped attacking his motives and character. Such attacks, like inane ‘scoffing’ are common means to express hostility of such a kind, though one must admit that not a few Voynich narratives are amusing.
The way to pass safely between the Scylla of plodding literalism and the Charybdis of pareidolia is, simply, to know more. Ask questions. Do the hard yards. Cross-examine yourself at every step. Make yourself your best-informed and sternest critic. Doesn’t matter if others think your ideas plausible. As Feynman says:
“It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are …[It doesn’t matter how many are willing to believe, either.] If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
What is not explained about the image of Orata, by the words of Valerius nor of Pliny is why Orata’s “pensilia balinea” are here given the form of a basket woven from straw, or from sea-grass or something of that sort. The detail shown (below, left) tells us that in medieval Latin Europe baskets of this type were known, but whether ever made so large as that in the Harley manuscript image we may never know; such objects rarely survive the centuries.
Terms for baskets in Latin and Old English are on a page at Wyrtg’s site.
Most modern commentaries cross-reference Valerius’ pensilia balinea with Vitruvius‘ description of Roman baths, and take it that Orata’s invention was not “suspended baths”of the sort envisaged by the Harley image, but those piers (suspensura), sometimes of stacked blocks called suspensera, by which the floor of a Roman baths was ‘suspended’.
While I cannot follow Fagan in some of his enthusiasms, I think he has the right of it, and is in harmony with the fifteenth-century translator and illustrator, to the extent he says:
I believe that Orata’s … invention was used in connection with fish-raising rather than with human bathing. Orata was widely known as a fish-farmer, and may even have derived his cognomen from the practice. Tellingly, all the sources mentioning Orata [and] his pensiles balineae together strongly imply a connection between the device and Orata’s fish-farming business; in fact, Orata and his pensiles balineae are never explicitly linked to baths for human use. Furthermore, Pliny’s notice appears in the general context of a section on men who invented fishponds….(p.59)
Garrett G. Fagan, Sergius Orata: Inventor of the Hypocaust?, Phoenix, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1996), pp. 56-66.
On Roman plumbing and suspensura see e.g.
Robert James Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology, Volume 4.
Vitruvius, di Architectura, Bk 5 10.2)
Readers may also enjoy:
Janet DeLaine, ‘Some Observations on the Transition from Greek to Roman Baths in Hellenistic Italy’, Mediterranean Archaeology, Vol. 2 (1989), pp.111-125.
John Wilkes (ed.), Encyclopaedia Londinensis, Volume 7 (1810) is – of all places – the best for detailed description of traditional fishing methods. on Tunny fishing see p. 415
To the foregoing, I should like to add the suggestion that Valerius seems to have understood more clearly that Pliny ever did the implications of those efforts made by Lucullus and Orata; that around the Bay of Naples, infused as it was still with Greek heritage and culture, those fish-breeders had as their model the landscape about Byzantion of Thrace (as it then was), whose natural abundance of fish is constantly discussed and marvelled over, described in extraordinary detail by several classical and late classical authors, including Strabo. The other centre of the fish-trade – apart from Campania – was Gades in Iberia, an old Phoenician stronghold. The coins of those cities, from centuries before Orata lived, to as late as the 3rdC AD, show the city’s character throughout the greater Mediterranean world by that means. I might have taken a broader range of examples, but concentrate here on the period from the days of Orata (early 1stC BC) to that of Strabo (64/63 BC – c. 24 AD), Pliny ( AD 23–79) and Dionysius of Byzantion (2ndC AD).
Strabo may be said to dilate on the theme of Byzantion’s abundance from the sea, but fish and gods are the whole tenor of Dionysius’ Anaplous of the Bosporus. Classed as a ‘geography’ it reads more like a manual and sailing guide for the god-fearing fisherman, and since it will be important to understand how the region’s character was perceived in the general imagination, when Lucullus and Orata lived, as when Valerius, Pliny and Strabo wrote, I’ll quote a little from those two authors: first from Dionysius and then from Strabo:
from Dionysius of Byzantion
§ 5 With the current breaking sharply near here, the largest part pushes on toward Propontis, but the gentle part conducive to fishing is received in the so-called Horn. This is the gulf beneath Bosporion headland, quite deep, more so than an anchorage, for it stretches for 60 stades, and safe as any harbor, with mountains and hills encircling it to block the winds, and further in with rivers that bring down deep, soft silt, at the mouth under the headland on which lies the City .[proving that Byzantion was a walled city before Constantine translated the capital of the Roman empire thence and renamed Byzantion ‘Constantinople’).
§ 6 The city has sea all around it except for the isthmus connecting it to the mainland….. That sea is deep close inshore, and with strong currents driven by the Pontic sea and the narrowness of the passage and the impact and refluxes that strike the city in a mass. It divides around the Bosporion headland, part of it flowing into the deep, fish-laden gulf and ends in slight, shallow landings. It is called Horn from the similarity of the shape. It surpasses a gulf in depth, as I said, and a harbour in convenience. For big mountains surround it protecting it from the violence of the winds ….
§ 36 … Bolos, with a rich winter fishery, on which is a precinct of Artemis Phosphoros (lightbearer) and Aphrodite Praeia (mild), to whom the the Byzantines* customarily sacrifice. For she is believed to store up the favorability of the wind, calming and suppressing the excessive disturbance they cause.
* ‘Byzantines’ here means people under the rule of Thracian Byzantion.
§ 37 The next place, Ostreodes (oystery), is named from the occurrence. For an underwater reef is formed at sea, whitened by the multitude of oysters, and the bottom is visible, especially in calm weather. The place grows back what is consumed, so the use is so to say profligate, and oyster beds rival the fishery in value.
§92 After Chelai is the place called Hieron, which was built by Phrixus, son of Nephele and Athamas, when he sailed to Colchis, a place indeed owned by the Byzantines, but a common haven to all who sail. ….
and this next item, more than oysters, could be why C. Sergius received the cognomen ‘Orata’:
§ 93. In the sanctuary is a bronze statue of ancient work, a young man stretching out his hands in front of him.
Many explanations are given for why this statue is composed this way; some say it is a sign of the boldness of sailors, deterring reckless navigation into danger and showing the happiness and reverence of those who return safely. For neither is without its terror. Others say that a boy wandering on shore returned shortly after his ship had left the port, and, overcome by despair for his safety, stretched his hands up to heaven, but that the god heard the prayers of the boy and returned the ship to port. Others say that on the occasion of a great calmness of the sea, while every wind was still and a ship was long delayed, its sailors were struggling under the scarcity of the port’s supplies. Whereupon a vision appeared to the captain, ordering the captain to sacrifice his own son, since by no other means could the voyage and the winds resume. But at the moment when the captain, being compelled by necessity, was ready to sacrifice the boy, it is said that the boy stretched out his hands, and that the god, moved by pity at the senseless punishment of the boy or by the boy’s youth, took up the boy and sent a favourable wind. Let each judge as he likes whether these or the contrary are credible.
from the translation by Brady Kiesling from the Greek/Latin edition of Carolus Wechser, Anaplous Bosporou. Dionysii Byzantii De Bospori navigatione quae supersunt (1874). The English translation is online [TOPOS]. Wechser’s Greek/Latin edition digitised at Archive.org.
And so one sees the inference in Pliny’s treatment of Lucullus’ changing the landscape near Naples creating as it were a new ‘Hellespont’ that cost more than his palace, and created another ‘golden horn’ as sheltered arm of the sea. Similarly, by knowing Strabo’s text, the parallel is clear for Valerius’ description of Otata’s engineered landscape: “He separated shoals of diverse sorts of fish within the large circuits of vast Moles..[and] burdened the hitherto unpopulated banks of Lake Lucrinus with stately high structures, so he might keep his shell-fish fresh..” A Byzantium in miniature.
Now the distance from the headland that makes the strait only five stadia wide to the harbour which is called “Under the Fig-tree” (medieval Pera, now Galata) is thirty-five stadia; …. The Horn, which is close to the wall of the Byzantines, is a gulf that … is split into numerous gulfs — branches, as it were.The pelamydes [‘tunny’] rush into these gulfs and are easily caught — because of their numbers, the force of the current that drives them together, and the narrowness of the gulfs; in fact, because of the narrowness of the area, they are even caught by hand. Now these fish are hatched in the marshes of Lake Maeotis, …and move along the Asian shore as far as Trapezus and Pharnacia. It is here that the catching of the fish first takes place, though the catch is not considerable.. .But when they reach Sinope, they are mature enough for catching and salting.Yet when once they touch the Cyaneae and pass by these, the creatures take such fright at a certain white rock which projects from the Chalcedonian shore that they forthwith turn to the opposite shore. There they are caught by the current, and since at the same time the region is so formed by nature as to turn the current of the sea there to Byzantium and the Horn at Byzantium, they naturally are driven together thither and thus afford the Byzantines and the Roman people considerable revenue.
Strabo, Geography, Book VII, Chapter 6.
At this point in the log is a note that questions of continuity between the Roman and the medieval trade have already been treated..
Robert I Curtis, Garum and Salsamenta: Production and Commerce in Materia Medica (Brill: 1991)
If any reader shares my fascination for technicalities, they might also enjoy:
James Arnold Higginbotham, Artificial Fishponds in Roman Italy (University of North Carolina Press: 1997) though I should add that it hasn’t any relevance to study of Beinecke Ms 408.
That the texts of Strabo, and of Dionysius of Byzantion were still known and copied in Constantinople during the early fourteenth century is proven by the deservedly famous Vatopedi manuscript, a complation of texts from major and minor classical authors describing the sea-routes of the Black Sea, Red Sea and to as far as England. It is difficult to think other than the compilation was made for contemporary needs, and these may have included the needs of foreigners resident in the enclaves of Pera and within Constantinople, wanting to know those routes. Diller’s study of the Vatopedi remains a standard reference.
Aubrey Diller, ‘The Vatopedi Manuscript of Ptolemy and Strabo’, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 2 (1937), pp. 174-184.
Codex Vaticanus 2061. – includes text from Strabo, Geographia on leaves 235, 237, 240, 243, 244, 246-249, 251-253, 310-315. 20.5 by 20.3. Taken to the Vatican library in the 17thC from the monastery of St. Mary of Patirium, a suburb of Rossano in Calabria.
Postscript: The two masters of theology who translated Valerius’ Facta et Dicta held degrees at the highest level offered at that time in western Europe. It can be presumed, then, that they were well aware of post-classical and Christian associations for bathing. For the medieval Christian these would certainty include association with baptism and with marriage. For a brief explanation see Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae VI.xix.41; IX.vii.8.
Header illustration: (left) A swiss pocket-watch, the most complicated in the world; (inset) ‘no hammers’ sign; (right) bench of Swiss watchmakers’ tools. And for the smart-guys who immediately look for a hammer among the watchmaker’s equipment: that’s not a hammer but a very small mallet.
This post is about the equipment, chiefly intellectual equipment, needed to treat with a manuscript as problematic as Beinecke MS 408 – so it’s more about expertise than about materials science; I’ll get back to codicology in the next post.
I expect that my broaching this subject may cause hackles to rise on some readers, while others will think it self-evident that any person who knows too little can only misinform those who know still less.
But from the range of matter on the internet, in papers issued as pdfs and even books in print, it is evident that the idea is general that with this medieval manuscript anyone can ‘have a go’ .
The bar for newcomers is certainly set highest for cryptological theories, of which few survive unless the proponent has taken time to study the history of cryptology and of methods already tried.
Next are studies that involve linguistics and statistical analyses. New readers should consider the work done by Julian Bunn, E.M. Smith and Koen Gheuens‘ latest post (and comments made to it) to get a clear idea of the present level of discussion in that subject. Nick Pelling‘s recent post on ‘Currier A’ and ‘Currier B’ should also prove illuminating.
The bar against novices is less high when translations are claimed – hence the regular claims that the text has been translated. Part of the problem in this case is the lack of persons with the time, languages and inclination (Voynicheros or not) to test and review such claims. One wonders what sort of ‘peer reviewer’ is being invited by the publishers today; the book by Tucker and Janick was published by Springer (no less) but it is only thanks to the kindness of Magnus Pharao Hansen that we know their claimed “Nahuatl” is not.
A neat illustration of the fact that it is inherent value, nor format, which makes information valuable. Tucker and Janick’s book appeared in print; Hansen’s refutation of their ‘Nahuatl’ translation in a blogpost. The benefit of information published as book or blogpost is that it comes with a date-stamp – very helpful when trying to clarify questions of precedence, originality and attribution.
Poorest of all are standards for accepting or rejecting assertions made about the manuscript’s iconography or quasi-historical narratives. Some adopt the form of scholarly papers while lacking such quality. Others don’t bother. Some few are by scholars who (like Newbold) made the basic error of accepting, untested, other persons’ unfounded or ill-founded assertions as their ‘givens’.
I am not suggesting everyone must leave the field who hasn’t formal qualifications in manuscript studies, materials sciences, comparative cultural history, or cryptography… or anything else.
A doctorate is no promise of a balanced attitude and the history of Voynich studies shows its course regularly de-railed or misdirected by individuals who, being qualified in one field, imagine themselves omni-competent.
William Friedman is one of the earliest examples; his skill in cryptography is a matter of record but he was mistaken in supposing that all other matters – codicology palaeography, and the pictorial text – were inherently inferior studies which might be treated as ancillary to his own.
Where he might have set reasonable limits for his search for ‘the cipher method’ by accepting the opinions of those better qualified to date and provenance manuscripts, his narrow focus meant that on the one hand he accepted many of Wilfrid’s assertions uncritically and, on the other, pursued his imagined ‘author’ as far as the seventeenth century. He treated persons such as Fr. Petersen and Erwin Panofsky less as valuable guides than as sources from which to extract computable ‘yes-no’ data and overall showed that lack of balance and over-confidence that ensures failure, barring a miracle.
Again, Hugh O’Neill was a qualified botanist, but his area of competence was the native flora of Canada – and to a lesser extent, of Alaska. Nothing in his writings, or in what others said of him during his lifetime indicates any particular knowledge of, or interest in, medieval history, art, or manuscripts. Nor does he seem to have paid due attention to Fr. Petersen, who had told him plainly and repeatedly that no palaeographer could support O’Neill’s bright idea. O’Neill himself had so little interest in the question of historical context that he cannot have even tested the ‘Columbus brought sunflowers’ theory against primary documents relating to Columbus’ voyages. As for his ability to read the manuscript’s imagery … well, let’s call it naive.
And again, Robert Brumbaugh. A professor of philosophy with a chair at Yale, his area was the philosophers of classical Greece and, to a lesser extent, of Rome. Presumably he knew something of classical history and languages as necessary adjunct to those studies, but his papers about the Voynich manuscript show no evidence that he was at pains to learn more about manuscripts, medieval history, botany, or the range and variety of star-lore and -science known in the medieval (or earlier) periods What he read of cryptography seems only to have been in connection Voynich theories. His acknowledgements reinforce the impression that he, too, imagined himself competent in all things because formally qualified in one. His paper on ‘Voynich botany’ credits Hugh O’Neill’s paper, his own nephew Mr Eric Arnould and “a Mr Pero, of Syracuse, New York”. Not a single colleague in botany or any other relevant discipline, not even from those at Yale.
Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘Botany and the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Manuscript Once More’, Speculum, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jul., 1974), pp. 546-548
Claiming to have ‘solved’ the text, Brumbaugh mentions Marjorie Wynne and Louis Martz, one being the Beinecke’s head librarian and the other its honorary director, a Professor of English. But neither is mentioned as helping him learn more of codicology, medieval manuscripts or even medieval English texts – but only for their ‘encouraging’ him.
Robert S. Brumbaugh, ‘The Solution of the Voynich “Roger Bacon” Cipher’, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 49, No. 4 (April 1975), pp. 347-355.
However, give Brumbaugh some credit for keenness in observation. As I write this, I see that I may cite him as precedent for noting as Dana Scott, and then I would later do, that the Voynich ‘aries’ are drawn as goats, not sheep, for he wrote in another paper the paper above that they are “[as] much like a goat as like a ram…”. See Robert S. Brumbaugh,’The Voynich ‘Roger Bacon’ Cipher Manuscript: Deciphered Maps of Stars’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39 (1976), pp. 139-150. (p.147).. That the same observation had to be made independently in 1976, and (by Dana) about thirty years later, and again by me forty and more years afterwards can be attributed to two things: first, that a goat did not fit the usual theories and secondly the ‘groundhog day’ phenomenon which sees little accounting for precedence – an error which becomes exponential. Today (in August 2019), the fact is being absorbed and repeated (if not explained) in a number of blog-posts and chat-rooms. (Note corrected and expanded – 19thAugust 2019)
The issue, then, is not about qualified as against unqualified Voynicheros, but rather of an individual’s unreasonable self-confidence in their capacities, despite their limited range of intellectual tools, and their underestimating the complexity of problems and evidence presented by this manuscript.
To say that ‘anyone with two eyes’ can understand the imagery in the Voynich manuscript, or date its hands, or correctly attribute its manufacture to a time and place is as stupid as a carpenter’s saying that because he has two hands and a hammer he can put together a plane as good as any now flying.
To have one skill and a theory may be enough to make a useful contribution, but to suppose that instills the capacity for all other skills is to act like a child who claims they can fix a broken clock with just a hammer.
The task of understanding this particularly difficult manuscript is better compared to the work of an old-fashioned watchmaker, who must put together a great many separate, interlocking elements, aware of how each relates to and contributes to the workings – and whether each has been accurately formed by the makers. In this case the parts are explanations for those cues embodied in manuscript’s materials, structure and iconography; in connecting the historical and cultural cues with the evidence of linguistics, palaeography .. and quite possibly cryptography…
It is not a simple process. It requires solid evidence and input from a range of competencies. It is not as simple as theory-creation, effective theory-promotion, relying on the age of ‘canonised myths’, nor simply of logical thinking. As one of my students once said, “This is hard because you have to know so much stuff”,
Logic is the pride of many Voynicheros, but logic is a tool which produces results no better than its ‘givens’. Nor should people with an ability in the critical sciences suppose those of the pragmatic sciences are less intellectually demanding or easier than their own – or vice versa.
As one scholar said, in speaking to a group of cryptologists in 2013:
“.. 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” in a comment to Ciphermysteries, December 10, 2013)
We should be seeking less to ‘break’ the text, or ‘solve’ the manuscript than to understand it. The manuscript isn’t the problem; the problem is that some basic flaws in the manuscript’s past study leave us still – after more than a century – unable to rightly interpret the evidence embodied in the manuscript’s form, materials, script and content. I’d suggest a prospective revisionist always keep two questions to the fore when reading what has been, or is being said of the manuscript’s content: ‘Where’s the evidence for that idea?’ and ‘Is that inference valid?’.
Because, to repeat the revisionist’s theme-song:
It doesn’t make a difference how beautiful the guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
My thanks to Professor Bill Sherman, Director of the Warburg Institute and Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, for permission to re-print his transcription of Panofsky’s answers.
In 2014, at the Folger Library, Professor Sherman curated an exhibition in which Beinecke MS 408 was included. Some of Professor Sherman’s publications are cited in:
G. Stuart Smith, A Life in Code: Pioneer Cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman (2017). see e.g. p.220.
Everyone’s thanks is due to Jim Reeds for first finding and transcribing the 1950s material and to Rich Santacoloma for doing the same for Anne Nill’s letter. (I should say now that I’m hunting another document whose content – if found – might make this whole post redundant. Fingers crossed!)
In what follows, my own commentary and its documentation is behind the black arrows. The post altogether is very long: more than 6,000 words if you expand it fully. But you can bypass the comments which make more than half of it, or come back some other time when you think they might be useful. The posts are published as notes and framework for the Bibliography.
What I have not fully described in this post is the early, keen interest felt by both Erwin Panofsky and Richard Salomon, Panofsky having been offered (in 1933) a complete photostat copy of the ms, taking it to Germany where he consulted gave it to Salomon. The latter showed keen interest in the puzzle and later came with Panofsky to talk with met Anne Nill at the Library of Congress (where Nill worked). I think it telling that Panofsky declines to speak of his own opinion in answering Friedman’s quiz.
Q – W. Friedman; A – E.Panofsky
Q 1: Have you examined the VMS itself.
A: I saw the Voynich manuscript in 1931. Panofsky doesn’t say that he was presented with a full photostat copy in 1933, lent it to colleagues (including Salomon) but had it returned to him at some time before 1953. I’ll come back to that in another post.
Note – Panofsky arrived in New York in September 1931, but Nill’s correspondence suggests he did not see the manuscript itself until early the next year. Twenty years later, Panofsky seems to have mis-remembered. The correspondence is detailed in a coming post, ‘Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1932.’
Q 2: What is it written on; with what writing tool?
A: If you apply the words “parchment” and “vellum” in the strict sense (that “vellum” has to be made of the skin of calves* rather than other animals) I am not sure . However, the medium was certainly vellum in the more general sense and characterised by a fairly coarse-grained texture which in places caused individual strokes to appear like a series of dots when looked at with a magnifying glass. This, incidentally, may have caused the late Professor Newbold to believe that each of these dots stood for a letter and each letter for a whole word. The instrument used was doubtless a quill pen, the writing and the contours of the drawings being done in ink, the coloring, so far as I remember, in the kind of pigment usually described as “wash.”
Note: *the term ‘calfskin’ is sometimes seen used instead of vellum, but this can cause confusion given that ‘calfskin’ is often used, by itself, to mean calfskin leather. If using ‘vellum’ there is no need to add ‘calf-skin’ in front of it; vellum is made of calves’ skins by default. Uterine vellum is different again.
Q 3: What’s the date?
A: Were it not for the sunflower which, if correctly identified, would date the manuscript after 1492, I should have thought that it was executed a little earlier, say, about 1470. However, since the style of the drawings is fairly provincial, a somewhat later date, even the first years of the sixteenth century, would not seem[sic!] to be excluded. I should not go lower than ca. 1510-1520 because no influence of the Italian Renaissance style is evident.
(At my second reading through these responses, I laughed out loud here… -D)
It is a delightful moment of Panofsky wit – but since none of the cryptanalysts ‘got’ it and d’Imperio takes this answer at face value, as did Tiltman in 1968 and as current Voynich writers still do, I’ll spell out Panofsky’s ‘dig’ briefly here, having already discussed the “sunflower in the Vms” issue in a separate Page.
You should know first that no-one took O’Neill’s ideas seriously at the time. So, for example, Nill, had said in writing to Salomon in the previous year (April 28th., 1953) telling him of it and saying, “We do not think it is a sunflower, and neither does Fr. Petersen.”
Here, in answer to question 3, Panofsky says he could go as far as ‘even the first years of the sixteenth century’. Normally that would mean not after 1510. (otherwise, you’d say ‘early decades…’
Now – see how his response to Question 8 says that the ‘sunflower’ is the only plant Panofsky ‘recognises’? How can that be, because what he has to recognise first is the style of drawing, and it’s not that of the European drawings of the sunflower, the first of which appears in Dodoens’ book of 1568 – as Panofsky surely knew. The illustration had even been reproduced as recently as 1951 in an American journal. (see below)
Is Panofsky confused?… I don’t think so… because here’s the thing. … Dodoens described the plant as ‘Peruvian Chrysanthemum’. And guess when Europeans first invaded Peru.?.. yep. 1510. … Talk about ‘fairly provincial….’ 🙂
So as I read it, Panofsky’s underlying message is: “If that’s a sunflower, I’m a Dutchman”.. or a Peruvian. [yes, I know Dodoens was actually a Fleming… and we shouldn’t take ‘Peruvian’ too literally. But that’s how it was described by Dodoens and for some time afterwards]
So Panofsky’s pulling Friedman’s leg, knowing perfectly well that Friedman won’t realise it. There’s no other way to reconcile the answers given to questions 3 and 8 save a tongue-in-cheek logic which implies that for a manuscript to be ‘no later than the first years of the sixteenth century’ AND to show the ‘Peruvian chrysanthemum’ the draughtsman would have to be in Peru.
… Dodoens wasn’t born until 1517.
Luckily, Panofsky was not to see Tucker and Janick later insisting (Springer, 2018) that O’Neill was right to imagine a sunflower in the Voynich manuscript, and further that Voynichese was – if not Peruvian – some lost dialect of Nahuatl. On the other hand, I think Magnus Pharao Hansen’s swift, cool and learned rebuttal of their ‘Nahuatl-dialect’ argument might have pleased the Professor well. ( And really – the Voynich-books coming out of Springer of late make one wonder what that press is coming to!)
Hugh O’Neill, ‘Botanical Observations on the Voynich MS.’, Speculum, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Jan., 1944).
Charles B. Heiser, Jr., ‘The Sunflower among the North American Indians’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 95, No. 4 (Aug. 17, 1951), pp. 432-448.
Charles B. Heiser, Jnr., ‘Origin and Development of the Cultivated Sunflower’, The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 17, No. 5 (May, 1955), pp. 161-167.
But (now on the alert) back to the responses…
Q 4: Why do you think so?
A: The above date is based on the character of the script, the style of drawing and on such costumes as are in evidence on certain pages, for example folio 72 recto.
Panofsky indicates the criteria for dating content in a manuscript, but says nothing specific. Without further explanations given – or asked – the answer is one that would apply equally to whatever dates a person offered for any manuscript….We need to know how the ‘character of the script’ is perceived to accord with posited dates and, as importantly, with those of the place to which the item is being ascribed. The ‘style of drawing’, similarly… And just which dates (1470 or 1520 here, or fourteenth century as offered in 1931 1932) does he really think confirmed by the costume? He says the manuscript displays nothing of Italian Renaissance character.
The majority of more recent writers, however, who have shared with us their perception of the figures’ costumes argue that they are High [and thus Italian] Renaissance. To be clear, it is a position which the present writer does not share. However, most recent writers have also focused to a surprising degree, almost obsessive, on the calendar’s ‘Archer’ emblem where Panofsky draws attention instead to f.72r, Once again, it seems to me, Panofsky is making an oblique joke at Friedman’s expense though – I sense – also offering a genuine bit of information even if only for the specialist in philology and comparative palaeography.
Q 5: What’s it about?
After first turning the spotlight on that figure with a wand, Panofsky now says:
A: So far as can be made out before the manuscript has been decoded, its content would comprise: first, a general cosmological philosophy explaining the medical properties of terrestrial objects, particularly plants, by celestial influences transmitted by astral radiation and those “spirits” which were frequently believed to transmit the occult powers of the stars to the earth; second, a kind of herbal describing the individual plants used for medical and, conceivably, magical purposes; third, a description of such compounds as may be produced by combining individual plants in various ways .
‘Before the manuscript has been decoded’ is a slightly mocking comment; Panofsky’s life was spent ‘decoding’ pictures, for many of which no accompanying text was present. The error of supposing imagery’s understanding depends on accompanying text is another of those nonsensical ideas endemic in Voynich studies, and will be asserted by persons who, not knowing a word of Latin, still hunt manuscripts for images which they expect to find legible… and, of course, do find legible in a way they never find imagery from the Vms legible.
The lesson which should be taken from this is that (a) when imagery derives from a familiar culture, it is legible and (b) when it is not legible it’s not because some accompanying text can’t be read.
The fact is that Friedman did presume all about the manuscript was dependent on the text’s translation, and in 2008, when the present writer first came to the study and began explaining the imagery in terms of cultural and stylistic expression, she was informed that all comments on the imagery were “personal and subjective” or “theoretical” and that nothing certain could be said until the written part of the text had been read.
As to Panofsky’s speaking of “general cosmological philosophy…” etc. – he has made a fairly obvious collation, heaping together bits from Newbold’s paper of 1921, and standard medieval ideas, but then ‘occulting’ them by means of what I’d describe as a purple-prose code. With delicious wit, he plays on ideas and terms proper to cryptography, while referencing medieval ideas and Newbold’s neo-Platonic speculations in a way you might well describe as contrapuntal.
Panofsky is verbose; he uses substitutions (e.g. “astral radiation” for al_Kindi’s radii stellarum; “spirits” for angels)… and so on. This is typical of his multi-faceted commentaries on art and his well-known humour.
So now, bearing in mind that the figure from f.72r is likely to be ‘read’ by any European as bearing a magic wand, and that the Americans called ‘Magic’ the system of coded messages generated by the Japanese ‘purple’ machine – and Friedman’s involvement in breaking that cipher, so Panofsky writes, verbose, with substitutions, Magic-Purple (prose).. about the rotas of heaven and earth… combining individual ‘elements’ in various ways.. In short, envisaging a cosmic, yet elegant, ‘enigma’. Quite beautiful!
It wasn’t entirely nice of Panofsky, I suppose, to make sport of Friedman in that way, but it is a just parallel for the ‘sport’ which Friedman and his wife had made of Newbold.
Nor had Friedman quite broken ‘Purple’ before It had broken him. His mind had given way in the first year of the war (1939) and while he was institutionalised, others in his team continued the work, with Lt.Francis A. Raven completing it.
about Raven: various sources refer to an NSA publication (issued online as pdf), some sources even including the link, but these do not seem to be current. In case you may fare better, here are the details:
Mowry, D. P., “Cryptologic Almanac 50th Anniversary Series – Francis A. Raven.” NSA/Center for Cryptologic History, released Jun 12, 2009, FOIA Case# 52567.
Friedman again broke down while trying to ‘break’ the Voynich text, and again had to leave the effort to others including Tiltman and Currier. In the end, the Voynich text defeated all who tried to ‘break it’, but those who – like Currier, Tiltman and others – were content to make careful observations of script and text-distributions etc. did make a lasting contribution.
To see how Panofsky’s response to Q.5 reprised Newbold’s ideas is easy enough; the resources are online.
Some may not be able to recognise the ‘purple prose’ encoding of ordinary medieval ideas, though, so here are a couple of passages showing how the virtu in things of earth, each conferred in its turn during the year, was believed transmitted from the Divine to earth by the intermediary stars, identified by some Christians – and not by others – with the angels. The first passage is chosen only because it’s the neatest, and despite Tester’s having neglected to name the fifteenth-century German cleric who preached this:
As God gave their power to stones and to herbs and to words, so also he gave power to the stars, that they have power over all things, except over one thing. They have power over trees and over vines, over leaves and grasses, over vegetables and herbs, over grains and all such things; over the birds in the air, over the animals in the forests, and over the fishes in the waters and over the worms in the earth: over all such things that are under heaven, over them our Lord gave power to the stars, except over one thing. … man’s free will: over that no man has any authority save thyself.
Berthold of Regensberg. Cited from Tester, A History of Western Astrology (1987) p.178. edit Feb, 26th., 2019 – apologies to Tester; it was I who had omitted the speaker’s name from my own notes.
and see e.g. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Q.73, Article 1, reply to Objection 3;
“…Species, also, that are new, if any such appear, existed beforehand in various active powers; so that animals, and perhaps even new species of animals, are produced by putrefaction by the power which the stars and elements received at the beginning…”
or even the 2nd C eastern Christian, Theophilus of Antioch, contemplating the year’s interlocked rotas:
Consider, O man, His works — the timely rotation of the seasons, and the changes of temperature; the regular march of the stars; the well-ordered course of days and nights, and months, and years; the various beauty of seeds, and plants, and fruits; and the various species of quadrupeds, and birds, and reptiles, and fishes, both of the rivers and of the sea; or consider the instinct implanted in these animals to beget and rear offspring, not for their own profit, but for the use of man; and the providence with which God provides…
and especially see:
Edward Grant, chapter ‘Celestial Motion and its Causes’ in Grant, E., Planets, Stars, and Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687. (1996)
NB Alan B. Scott, Origen and the Life of the Stars (OUP 1991)
Q 6: Are there any plain text books sort of [sic.] like the VMS?
A: Manuscripts in plain language remotely comparable to the Voynich manuscript are, unfortunately, of at least four kinds: first, herbals; second, cosmological and astrological treatises; third, medical treatises in the narrower sense of the term; fourth, possibly treatises on alchemy. As for the first kind, you seem to have more knowledge than I can claim. As for the second, I should advise to consult Sir Charles Singer, From Magic to Science, London 1928, and various publications by the same author; furthermore, it may be useful to consult Richard Salomon, Opicinus de Canistris, London, 1936; and F. Boll and G. von Bezold, Sternglaube und Sterndeutung, Second Edition (F. Gundel, Ed.), Berlin and Leipzig, 1926. As for the third kind, ample material is found in two serial publications, both edited by the late Carl Sudoff: Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin and Studien zur Geschichte der Medizin; of alchemy I know very little and can only refer you to the Entstehung und Ausbreitung der Alchemie by E.O. von Lippmann, Berlin, 1919 ff., as well as a fairly recent book by the famous psychologist C.O. Jung.
Don’t overlook the first conditional: ‘remotely comparable’. Again, Panofsky merely behaves as a Professor might towards a first-year student whose ‘theories’ outrun his basic knowledge. Panofsky here declines to discuss a single image from the Vms, or a single manuscript as ‘comparison’ for it, nor for a single detail in any drawing. As before, the basic message is, ‘Go away and read’.
So in this answer – as I interpret it, anyway – Panofsky has no intention of doing more than pointing Friedman towards basic texts and to certain individuals whose positions were secure. Panofsky’s conferring a knighthood on Singer is either a mistake or, as I think, an oblique comment on Friedman’s social pretensions, acting (for that reason) as antidote to any assumption of Singer’s inferiority by reason of Jewish inheritance. This bias is clearly reflected, though probably unconsciously, in d’Imperio’s account of the cryptanalysts’ “plan of Attack” in her Table of Contents, which I’ll treat later. Interestingly, Panofsky does not refer to Dorothea Singer, who was a fine medieval scholar, and who was referenced by Lynn Thorndike in 1921. Charles Singer’s book of 1928, however, makes no mention of Thorndike even though the first and second volumes of Thorndike’s A History of Science and Experimental Magic had been published five years earlier, in 1923.
Charles Singer wrote studies in the history of medicine for the first part of his career and then turned to writing history – notably editing the encyclopaedic History of Technology. What Panofsky doesn’t say, and perhaps didn’t know, is that Singer also knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin. He had been born in London. His father Simeon Singer was a rabbi and scholar. Singer was another scholar who had left his home to come with his wife in the 1930s to take up a post in America (UCLA), remaining until 1942. In that year, despite the great risk it entailed, he and his wife re-crossed the Atlantic to return to England. (British naval losses; American naval losses).
Singer’s ideas about the Voynich manuscript were apparently developed and communicated only by post and after 1954. What d’Imperio never says is whether such opinions were merely answers given a quiz such as that presented to Panofsky. It is quite likely they were; by 1957 Singer was in England and Friedman shows no interest in reading or learning about medieval art and manuscripts; he likes to have others do that sort of work, and then extract from them answers to set questions of his own devising, in way suited to ‘number-crunching’ and puzzle solving. Friedman relied heavily on feeding quantifiable data-bites into a computer as a means to ‘break the text’. So I think it probable that, rather than buy and read the recommended books, Friedman simply contacted the authors expecting short, easy answers to his own short, ‘baby-steps’ questions.
In Singer’s own Evolution of Anatomy, he says he will omit …
“Paracelsus, and Helmont, and their followers, since the movement they represent did not become important until the second part of the seventeenth century”…
yet he opines to Friedman by letter (responding to a quiz?) that his vague ‘feeling’ is that the Voynich manuscript might be of a Paracelsan and occult-alchemical character, and composed by an ‘author’ living in sixteenth-century Prague. As always, there seems to have been no effort made by the theorist to check whether their ideas were compatible with reality: that is, in this case, to see whether the manuscript’s materials, style of construction or ‘hand’ suited such an idea. (A: they don’t).
None of those “feelings” which Singer says more than once are vague impressions finds support from the manuscript itself, but they have found determined support among a group of Voynicheros whose members are quite determined upon.
I find Singer’s testimony most interesting as one more of the many instances where a scholar of eminence and wide knowledge of European medieval works can suggest no manuscript at all as close comparison for Beinecke MS 408. This is a point so widely un-noticed, and still less rarely considered for its implications, that it deserves a post of its own. I’ll call it ‘Angels and Fools’.
Two volumes of essays, dedicated to Singer, had been published in the year before Friedman was introduced to Panofsky.
E. Ashworth Underwood (ed.), Science, Medicine, and History: Essays on. the Evolution of Scientific Thought and Medical Practice. Written in honour of Charles Singer. Volumes I and Il. (1953).
Geoffrey Keynes’ review for the British Medical Journal neatly describes Singer’s character and publications. The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4873 (May 29, 1954), p. 1247.
Charles Singer, The Evolution of Anatomy: A Short History of Anatomical and Physiological Discovery to Harvey: Being the Substance of the Fitzpatrick Lectures Delivered at The Royal College of Physicians of London in the years 1923 and 1924.
Richard Georg [sometimes seen as George] Salomon (1894-1966) – converted to Christianity in 1902; escaped Nazi Germany in 1937. At the University of Berlin, Salomon had studied eastern European history under Theodor Schiemann (1847-1921), Byzantine history under Karl Krumbacher (1856-1909), the history of medieval law under Karl Zeurmer (1849-1914), and Latin paleography under Michael Tangl (1861-1921), under whom he completed his doctoral dissertation in February 1907: Studien zur normannisch-italischen Diplomatik. His name was among the six (with Panofsky’s) listed for expulsion from Hamburg University in 1934.
Panofsky’s pointing Friedman in the direction of these men, and texts, was not only wise, but kind. If all Friedman wanted was quiz-answers and easy ‘sound-bites’ the men might provide them; if he he was seriously interested in the manuscript as a late medieval product, studying the texts would begin his education.
d’Imperio is dismissive of Charles Singer, though including in her Bibliography five of Singer’s works (p.130) and two articles by Salomon. (p.129). I add a further note on Charles Singer’s theory further below.
Q 7: What plain text have you found in the VMS?
A: So far as I know, plain language writing is found: first on the pages showing the signs of the zodiac (folio 70 ff.) which seems to be provincial French; second, on folio 66; and third, on the last page, folio 116 verso. The entry on folio 66 reads, as discovered by Professor Salomon of Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, “der mus del,” which seems to be ancient German for “der Mussteil,” which is a legal term referring to household implements and stock of victuals which, after the death of a husband, cannot be withheld from his widow. The little figure and receptacles accompanying this entry may or may not refer to this idea. The entry on the last page reads: “So nim geismi[l]ch o.” This is again old German, the first word generally introducing a sentence following a conditional clause; the translation would be: “[If such and such a condition prevails], then take goat’s milk.” The last letter “o” is most probably to be completed into “oder,” which means “or.” The inference is that the sentence is unfinished and that some alternative substance was proposed in case goat’s milk should not be available. I may add that recipes of this kind are quite customary in mediaeval and Renaissance medicine.
Granted that Panofsky may, or may not, have agreed with Salomon’s reading of that marginalia – extraneous by definition to provenancing the manuscript’s original content as Panofsky realised (“The little figure …. may or may not refer to this idea”) – there has been a recurring discussion/dispute of Salomon’s reading, with Koen Gheuens’ summary of the ‘pro-‘ position neatly put and illustrated (together with his own thoughts) in his post of July 11th., 2017: Note also that Panofsky is as rigorous as ever in his principles – attributing Salomon’s insights to their author; his very meticulousness in such matters permits us now to credit Panofsky with first attributing to a ‘regional French’ dialect (Occitan?) the inscriptions over the central emblems in the Voynich calendar.
Occitan became a topic on the first mailing list during discussion of a book whose narrative attributed this manuscript to the Cathars of Langedoc. The question of Occitan then became one in its own right.
1997 Dennis Stallings published a list of bibliographic and other items relating to Occitan in the first mailing list (10 Feb 1997) including the important note (which was later independently stated by Artur Sixto in a comment to ciphermysteries, (February 17, 2011) that Occitan and Catalan – or Judeo-Catalan – are closely similar.
2009, Pelling credited Stolfi. In other posts, Pelling thought it most like the dialect of Toulouse – though he may have changed his views since then. Pelling first, and others including Don Hoffman later, noted a closely similar orthography on astrolabe inscriptions dating to c.1400. I’ll return to this matter when we come to the astronomical themes.
2011Artur Sixto’s comment was made (February 17, 2011) at ciphermysteries.com, saying he thought the forms closer to Judeo-Catalan, and commenting on use of that dialect among emigrees into north-western France. Because so many comments were made to the same post by Pelling I quote here the whole of Sixto’s comment:
Sixto wrote, “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).”
2015Commenting at Stephen Bax’s blog (May 18, 2015 – 11:14 pm) ‘Don of Tallahassee’ [Don Hoffman] noted similar forms for month-names used in Picardy, his examples taken from calendars in fifteenth-century Books of Hours.
Various others have reached similar opinions, often independently as a result of the ‘Voynich ground-hog day’ phenomenon.
On Salomon’s reading “der Mussteil,” see the lucid commentary by Koen Gheuens:
Salomon had consulted several secondary sources (which he cited in a letter of March 14th., 1936 to Panofsky or to Mrs.Voynich per Anne Nill), quoting in full an entry from:Der Sachsenspiegel (Landrecht) nach der ältesten Leipziger Handschrift herausgegeben von Prof. Dr. Julius Weiske. Neubearbeitet von weil. Professor Dr. Hildebrand. 8th.ed. Leipzig, O.R. Reisland, 1905 (Glossary p.28.)
Q 8: What plants, astronomical, etc, things have been recognised so far?
A: To the best of my knowledge, only the sunflower has been identified thus far.
To this I should have protested at first – had I been there – that Professor Panofsky must be joking, but then asked more of what he thought that might imply, if he really meant it.
Infuriatingly, if this is another reprise of things he had said at the meeting, it is another case of Friedman’s “blind spot” at work. An iconographic analyst of Panofsky’s calibre is (so to speak) the theoretical physicist of the art world; he has to know pretty much everything about everything expressed in visual form through the periods in which he specialises, and that includes the way plants and creatures are depicted in a given place at a given time AND what the depiction indicates about the signfiicance embedded in forms and details: that is, what non-superficial messages the image conveyed for persons of that time and environment. He would have to know the traditions of the bestiaries as well as the place of a creature in the schemes of Christian theology and moralia, as well as classical Greek and Roman lore. And so too for plants: is a rose intended as allusion to the Virgin Mary; to ‘Roman de la Rose’; to the physical rosa mundi; to an intended parallel between the pure soul of Mary as antidote to spiritual ills and the Rose as supposed protection against Plague … and so forth. This issue of intended significance is the one most noticeable by its absence in writings by persons who claim to ‘analyse’ imagery but who know nothing about it.
As regards plants, Panofsky’s well-known statement that “the rise of those particular branches of natural science which may be called observational or descriptive—zoology, botany, paleontology, several aspects of physics and, first and foremost, anatomy — was . . . directly predicated upon the rise of the representational techniques.” could not have been enunciated without a prior and thorough grounding in the way those fields of learning were illustrated before and during the period of the Renaissance.
Erwin Panofsky, Artist, Scientist, Genius: Notes on the “Renaissance-Dämmerung”, Lecture Given May 10, 1952 at the Fogg Museum Before the New England Conference on Renaissance-Studies. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1953). also included in Wallace K. Ferguson (et.al.), Six Essays on the Renaissance (1962).
[pdf] Claudia Swan, ‘Illustrated Natural History’ in Susan Dackerman (ed.), Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge , exhibition catalogue, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp.186-191.
On flowers, their perception, depiction and attitudes to cultivation from ancient to modern times, with emphasis on Europe’s medieval and Renaissance periods, see also
Jack Goody, The Culture of Flowers (CUP Archive, 1993).
reviewed by Chandra Mukerji in Theory and Society, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Aug., 1996), pp. 590-594
And quite apart from his professional studies, in which he discussed the symbolism intended by depiction of scarlet lilies, iris and honeysuckle, Panofsky’s correspondence shows a keen interest in the very practical aspect of botany: gardening.
Did he honestly mean that he could recognise not a single plant in the Vms? Not even in 9v, with its widely-accepted representation of one or more members of the viola-group?
Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: its origins and character (1953) Vol. 1 pp. 333 and note 6 to p.416.
‘Nothing but the sunflower’?? Hmmmm.
Q 9: Is it all in the same hand?
A: In my opinion the whole manuscript is by the same hand with the possible exception of the last page; but I am by no means sure of that.
(Another answer that says nothing.. -D)
Q 10: Why was it written’?
A: My idea always was that the manuscript was written by a doctor or quack trying to impart what he considered secret knowledge to a son or heir.
I have no idea whether Panofsky really believed this. It echoes a view first put forward (whether Panofsky knew it or not) by Georg Baresch who said in his letter to Kircher, “… it is not inconceivable that some good man…”.etc. Panofsky does seem, overall, to have shared the usual assumption of contemporary and later Voynich writers in imagining the work to be all the product of a single ‘author-artist’. The solution to this problem may lie in that as-yet unseen report which Reeds mentioned in the 90s, and described as written by Panofsky to Voynich.
A: My guess is that the manuscript was produced in Germany, which is supported by the fact that the goat’s milk sentence is continuous with the text of at least the last page of the manuscript.
(I prefer to comment on this in the context of the first (1931 1932) evaluation. -D)
Q 12: What do you think of the Roger Bacon theory?
A: Quatsch. The Roger Bacon theory is in my opinion at variance with all the available facts and has been convincingly disproved by Mr. Manly. Further endorsement of Mr. Manly’s adverse criticism is found in a brief review of his article by the above-mentioned Professor Salomon which appeared in: Bibliothek Warburg, Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliographie zum Nachleben der Antike, I, Leipzig and Berlin, 1934, page 96, No. 386.
I can reproduce Salomon’s review here, thanks to the patience of the Beinecke staff who found it among Anne Nill’s files (July 9th. 1936) as a clipping to which Salomon added that there was “no one else save you, Dr. Wilson and Dr. Petersen who could possibly be interested in it”. HIs view was that finding an exactly similar sequence of plants was the only practicable key, and perhaps this inspired Petersen’s concerted efforts to identify the plants. D)
Q 13: Full title of the Dictionary of Abbreviations. Title of Hans Titze’s book on forgeries, & of Mibillon’s history of diplomatics.
A: The dictionary of abbreviations is by Adriano Cappelli, Dizionario delle Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane; my edition is the second, published 1912, but there may be more recent ones. The book on forgery in art is by Hans Tietze and entitled Genuine and False; Copies, Imitations, Forgeries, New York, 1948. As far as the book by Mabillon is concerned, I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity. He did not write a book on “The History of Diplomatics” but his famous De re Diplomatica of 1681 laid the foundations of palaeography starting out with the investigation of documents which were supposed to be genuine and which he proved to be forgeries by studying the development of script. I should like to reiterate my opinion that the Voynich manuscript, whichever its place of origin, date and purpose, is certainly a perfectly authentic document.
I do not think anyone could mistake here the asperity with which Panofsky’s answers this question. His “I am afraid that I did not express myself with sufficient clarity’ is a very formal and very cold English- and European form of insult: there is everywhere a point at which extreme politeness becomes an insult. In modern American the equivalent might be: ‘Are you a total fool?’ Panofsky’s then explaining, in words of one syllable, the importance of Mabillon’s book (of which no genuine ‘student’ of medieval manuscripts could have passed three decades in ignorance), tells us yet again that Panofsky has been driven to the point of outrage: this is a venting of professorial wrath. And, need I say, Friedman remained quite unable to weigh the relative merits of amateurs against specialists; Panofsky had said, categorically, that the manuscript was genuine, and yet d’Imperio – who hasn’t any relevant training or experience to judge the matter – decides (as we see later) to keep the option open. The reason has nothing to do with the manuscript itself, but with two fixed yet unproven assertions: that the text is in cipher and that it is entirely the product of Latin (western) Christian culture.
Q14: What other scholars are interested in the VMS?
A: The only scholar who still takes some interest in the Voynich manuscript is, so far as I know, Professor Salomon, already mentioned twice.
“already mentioned twice.” (and doubtless also in the ‘conference’ shortly before). Panofsky has now quite lost patience with Friedman and his ‘quiz’. That Panofsky omits mention of Charles (or of Dorothea) Singer here, again suggests that they had not yet, to his knowledge, been involved with the study. Charles Singer’s opinions, as quoted by d’Imperio, come from letters dating to 1957 or so.
Q15: What do you think of the artificial language theory?
A: I do not feel qualified to pronounce about the probability of your [sic!] “artificial language” theory. I must confess that, for the time being, I am a little skeptical in view of the fact that, so far as I know, no attempts to construct such an artificial language can be shown to have been made until the beginning of the seventeenth century, whereas cipher scripts were developed and employed at a very much earlier date. As I mentioned in conversation, the Italian humanist, Leone Battista Alberti, welcomed the newly discovered “hieroglyphs” as a kind of writing that was independent of language differences and was therefore understandable to all initiated; but this would seem a rather different proposition because the hieroglyphs were not an artificial language developed, on systematic grounds, by a contemporary author but were reputed to be a sign language actually used by the Egyptians and therefore particularly attractive to the humanists who credited the Egyptians with a wisdom even more profound than that of the Greeks and Romans.
Panofsky’s comment about the dates being wrong for a deliberately-constructed artificial language (as such; not including newly-created scripts or alphabets to render a language) is absolutely right, and Friedman’s ignorance of even that – his own field – is once more evident. It is another item in proof that Panofsky was already better acquainted with the history than was Friedman. Panofsky also knows of O’Neill’s paper, published in 1944, though his knowledge of Alberti had long been part of his own scholarly repertoire. As, I expect, was his knowledge of medieval and Renaissance palaeography, essential to provenancing manuscripts and evinced by his familiarity with the books of which Friedman was still ignorant, though already had referred to them during their talk. His allusion to hieroglyphics is most likely to refer to the Hieroglyphica of Horapollo which has made such an impression on Dürer (among others). The edition by Boas includes some of Dürer’s drawings and an essay on the subject.
George Boas (ed. and trans.), The Hieroglyphics of Horapollo. (Boas’ translation was first published in 1950 but my copy is the 1993 edition which I think to be preferred. It includes a new foreword by Anthony T. Grafton)
SUMMATION: In my view, the assumptions made by Friedman, and the ‘theory’ on which his mind was already set – combined with his arrogance and ignorance of the basics needed to form a valid preliminary assessment of any medieval manuscript, but especially one whose content was obscure and imagery anomalous, effectively deterred Panofsky from bothering to provide Friedman with any informed comment on the manuscript’s imagery. It also – in my opinion- led him to avoid giving his personal assessment of the manuscript’s cultural origin, script or iconography. I read his responses chiefly as intended to ensure Friedman had no further excuse for contact.
Erwin Panofsky, Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1968. Eine kommentierte Auswahl in fünf Bänden, hrsg. von Dieter Wuttke (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag): Bd. I,Korrespondenz 1910 bis 1936 (2001); Bd. II,Korrespondenz 1936–1949 (2003). English reviews e.g. International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol.11 (2004) Dec (Issue 2), pp. 280-292.
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Next post: Cryptanalysts – Panofsky’s comments on provenance 1931 1932.