The author’s rights are asserted.
Koen has been in touch, and explained that the project was open collaboration, any forum-members who cared to do so contributing information and pictures they found and these, naturally enough, depended on each member’s decisions about where to look for examples. The map which results is thus a map of those contributions, and indirectly a reflection of members’ areas of interest. At the same time, my impression is that Koen would still welcome a broader data-base. If you care to contribute, but disinclined to have to join an online forum to do it, you might leave a comment under Koen’s blogpost of 2021. [here].
16th March 2023.
Researchers whose attention is focused on the written text in Beinecke MS 408 are looking for single finite answer to what is commonly assumed a ciphertext. I hope I do them no injustice in saying that for most, scientific method is closely associated with statistical analysis, and in recent years we have seen images mapped as data points in an effort to apply forms of frequency analysis.
Where in earlier years, the habit among those without specific training in reading pre-modern images was to claim it needed nothing but subjective interpretation and commonsense, or that historical arguments could be made by doing no more than presenting paired images as ‘matches’.
More recently, we have seen some effort made to reduce the treatment of drawings to a kind of statistical analysis which, though not particularly appropriate as methodology seems to be regarded as more efficient than studying the history of art and its methodologies, as if mapping ‘data points’ is by definition more scientific.
Few of us now leave school without learning that any science experiment begins by clearly stating the aim of that experiment. Then by itemising the specimens or samples to be tested. In labs one then describes the method, or at least details of the ISO and Standard Method(s) being applied.
Science students soon learn that if sample-collection is biased; if the methods employed are inappropriate; even if one or more samples are wrongly identified or if the technician is careless in applying standard methods, they still end up with a statistical result but the question posed will not have been answered nor any hypothesis rightly tested.
So far as I’m aware, the first person to try creating distribution-maps for images from Beinecke MS 408 was the Voynichero known only as ‘JK Petersen’. His efforts were hampered by his having evidently little background in medieval history, codicology, or palaeography and none in the history of art or the analytical methods best suited to addressing problematic drawings. His dedication to the ‘all-western-Christian-Germanic-central European’ vision was undisguised and was reflected in his research parameters and thus in his range of processed data.
On the other hand, even within his narrow research-parameters, his work turned up images that certainly assisted others, simply because he introduced so many. I believe he was the first to refer to that French Franciscan manual’s ‘November crocodile’ which assisted our own investigation of the Voynich calendar. What they didn’t and couldn’t do was to prove the manuscript a German product.
Koen and the Lobsters.
Koen Gheuns applied a more nuanced version of that method to clarify one path of dissemination for the ‘lobsters’ in the Voynich calendar, although (perhaps depending on the Warburg database?), he believed the type originated with Michael Scot’s work in twelfth-century Italy and Sicily.
From that point Koen moved forward through northern France to Alsace and to examples seen in images produced from Diebold Lauber’s workshop.
Our subsequent study here complemented Koen’s work by enquiring what precedent works might have influenced Scot’s conception of the Cancer lobsters. We focused on England where Scot received his early education, and France where he received his higher education, as well as southern Spain where he worked for some time and Sicily-southern-Italy where Scot worked in the Sicilian court and where the core copies of his texts were made and first preserved.
Once again, the presence of an effort at data-mapping proved a useful resource, even if it did not prove what the makers believed their statistical-geographic maps proved.
Koen et al. and swallowtails.
Koen Gheuens next approached the topic of ‘swallowtail’ merlons but it is characteristic of Koen’s thoughtful approach that, unlike ‘JKP’ , he began by stating clearly the aim of his latest experiment. His question was “Where were images of swallowtail merlons produced before 1450?”. This was limited by his further aim to more clearly define what is implied when sources speak of ‘swallowtail’ merlons as characteristic of northern Italy. He wanted more clarity on ‘northern Italy’.
The end result was that his research-parameters reduced in practice to “Where, within western Europe, do we find drawings or paintings showing buildings with swallowtail battlements?”
His tacit argument seems to be that wherever we find the most extant instances of such drawings or paintings, that is the most likely place to have seen the origin of this detail in one roundel of the Voynich map (often described as the ‘rosettes page’).
Whether the experiment did – or even could – point to where the Voynich manuscript was made is the question we consider in this post.
As Koen said, in his post of 2021, he had intended to limit the experiment to images in manuscripts and other forms of art. It was a sensible and well-informed decision, but in the event because working with a group he agreed to add a layer marking extant buildings on which ‘swallowtails’ of any type can be seen today.
As a result, the number of data points was greatly increased; the architectural (red) dots largely obscured the iconographic results, and the overall weighting shifted. (see maps further below)
I have tried to contact Koen, first to ask his permission to reproduce his map, and then to ask if he could send a comparison from which the red dots were absent, but so far I’ve been unable to reach him.
Koen assumes that a representation of ‘swallowtail’ merlons will serve as a cultural marker and thus narrow the range in which we might suppose the Voynich manuscript was made. His post of 2021 does not appear to distinguish provenance for the manuscript’s manufacture from provenancing contents.
If it could be shown that, prior to 1440, none but northern Italian draughtsmen created drawings that included swallowtail merlons, or rendered them in wood-carving, relief carvings, mosaics and so on, the chances would be good that the draughtsman who put them on the structure drawn in the map’s north roundel had been a native of northern Italy, or had gained his training there.
But even then, it would be just a fair chance. At the very least one would have to show that all the stylistic details in the map – or in that one roundel – find counterparts in works first created in northern Italy.
And even if the draughtsman had been native to northern Italy, it would not alone tell us where he was when the drawing was first given its form, or when that happened.
Numerous non-Latins travelled in Europe and members of various Italian city-states travelled abroad. Before 1440, we know, some were to be found resident around the Black Sea, in Egypt, central Asia, southern Iraq, Iran and southern China.
I’ll say again – provenancing the manuscript-as-object is work proper to codicologists and palaeographers. Provenancing content is a separate matter – and more exactly, a range of separate matters.
Koen’s range of samples accords with his stated aim of clarifying ‘northern Italian’ in connection with drawings of swallowtail merlons, but the finished map could suggest a certain bias in the sampling. Could – not necessarily does. The reason is poor documentation.
The reader is left uncertain whether the absence of examples from England, France, most of Spain, and the Adriatic (apart from Venice) means that efforts to find examples in those regions returned a null result, or whether the research parameters were so narrowly defined from the outset that those regions were ignored? If the study intended to clarify ‘northern Italian’ it’s understandable, but in that case why include manuscripts from Barcelona and Naples? Was the research heavily dependent, perhaps, on libraries having a large number of their manuscripts digitised?
Koen explained clearly the difficulties involved in adding architectural structures to the data, and in my opinion his initial plan to omit structures was wise, but working as part of a team means compromise. The red dots now swamp the map, and in some cases (such as Genoa), the structures included do not have pre-1440 merlons no matter how energetically civic pride might insist the nineteenth-century reconstructions were historically accurate.
Further difficulties arise because the specimens/data are not labelled, or not labelled accurately in the legend, so that readers are left without any idea of whether the cluster over Milan is the result of a single atelier’s work over, say, 1440-1450, or whether they represent manuscripts made there between 1200-1450. Those placed on Venice may, for all we know, contain a text closely related to that of Naples or Barcelona. Specimen-labelling is basic to any scientific experiment.
Below is a close-up of northern Italy. The whole of Koen’s map can be seen through the link (HERE) which he, and later Peter M., provided.
While this post was in draft, Peter M. directed me to the latest version but it seems little has changed since 2021.
So what does the map tell us?
Not very much. For non-manuscript paintings (the blue dots) none but location details are provided and for the manuscripts (black dots) all the usual information is omitted.
It is impossible, therefore, to determine whether – for example – what we see as blue dots through central Italy is the result of a single painter’s wanderings, or whether due to dissemination of a particular text, or text-type, or the motif’s popularity and transmission within a certain sector of society, such as the intermarrying nobility or a particular religious order.
We cannot follow the chronology for dissemination in manuscripts, since none is identifiable: date, title, holding library and shelf-number are all omitted.
Koen was perfectly right to urge caution about the overlay of those red dots. Even specialists in military architecture, and archaeologists working in the field are cautious when it comes to assertions about present-day examples of swallowtail merlons.
Even specialists in the history of these forms may have difficulty determining whether some are, or are not authentic reconstructions. I may be mistaken but to the best of my knowledge no original swallowtail merlons are extant in Genoa despite the protests of civic pride that the nineteenth-century rebuilds are authentic reconstructions.
It is true, as in the case of these Genoese merlons (above) that some closely reproduce an early form of such merlons. it is evident from the merlon’s height – able to cover a standing archer – and from the inclusion of slits through which the enemy might be observed and an arrow fired. Nonetheless, the merlons we see today date to the nineteenth-century.
Thanks to a Peter M., who quotes a source he describes as Castle Association and Architecture in the Middle Ages, I can say that before 1450 AD
*The swallowtail pinnacle (merlon) is unknown in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.
*North of the Alps, there are none [no structures with swallowtail merlons?] before 1500.
*From about 1540, castles [north of the Alps??] began to use the dovetailed battlements as a fashionable design. In most cases, even the architect is known.
Context and Significance.
It is understandable that for Voynicheros whose background is in the pragmatic sciences mapping ‘data-points’ might seem a logical way to produce or support any statistical argument, but that expectation is misapplied when it comes to reading and understanding the intention behind a pre-modern picture.
In the same way, people more accustomed to subjects using binary logic have a habit of assuming a division of all images into the literal versus the ‘decorative’, or the meaningful versus the non-meaningful and the same ideas are seen in descriptions of where and why swallowtails were used.
In the critical sciences, data mapping has to involve informed qualitative judgements and more than superficial knowledge of historical periods, documents and cultural attitudes.
Just as counting the number of jars in a medical store-cupboard, and mapping where each stands will not make a doctor of you, so simple data-point maps cannot alone explain he origin, date or intention of any among the Voynich manuscript’s drawings.
The factor most often overlooked is that of perceived significance: in this case what significance the various types of swallowtail merlons had for persons who commissioned, made, copied or regarded a given image in a given social environment and historical moment.
We know that, for a time, one or more types of swallowtail signified ‘the imperial party’. Were the mapped examples found chiefly in cities granted independent status by, say Frederick II, or are they perhaps more often seen in lands that were under the direct control of a western emperor when an image was made? Is the usage dependent a given city’s current political alignment or, perhaps, the leanings of a specific patron? Was a given instance intended to elicit negative or positive response?
Koen’s enthusiasm in 2021 led him to overstatement in his summary, for he wrote:
“The neat thing about this map is that we know for sure that the VM belongs on it as a data point among the blue markers”.
Why should we suppose that for the original maker, those merlons were any more definitive than the square-topped merlons, or more important than the starry spiral, or the various topographic elements? And those are all just in the map’s north roundel. Are any attested in the mapped manuscripts or paintings and if so which?
What lends Koen’s results more weight is that a number of quite independent researchers came to similar conclusions about a focus on the region around, or otherwise connected to Milan, where Koen’s map records the greatest number of manuscripts containing images with swallowtail merlons.
Milan is where Pelling’s historical research, combined with his studies of ciphers, codicology and palaeography, finally led him by 2005-6.
I’ve also concluded, in regard to the Voynich map, that we are most likely to owe its present form to a collaboration of Jews and Genoese, attested not only in Genoa but in Constantinople, Caffa and the Balearics.
Where to from here?
That work done by Koen Gheuens and his friends is not wasted. It should prove very helpful to anyone investigating questions of textual and iconographic transmission in those parts of medieval Latin Europe.
What the map cannot do is tell us where and when Beinecke MS 408 was produced. Establishing a manuscript’s date and place of manufacture is the work of palaeographers and codicologists.
Provenancing content is something else again.
Other questions: Merli, Rook, Rukh.
Etymologies should be taken with a little salt on the side of your plate, to be taken as needed.
For the term ‘merlon’ an etymological dictionary has:
The term merlon comes from the French language, adapted from the Italian merlone, possibly a shortened form of mergola, connected to Latin mergae (pitchfork), or from a diminutive moerulus, from murus or moerus (a wall). An alternative etymology suggests that the medieval Latin merulus (mentioned from the end of the 10th century) functioned as a diminutive of Latin merle, “blackbird”, expressing an image of this bird sitting on a wall.
Let’s start with that tenth century usage, which saw the walls ‘merli’ as blackbirds. Later, in English, the tower-birds, and the chesspiece both became ‘rooks’.
The nineteenth-century etymologists’ well-known disdain for languages other than Latin, Greek and the Germanic group often leaves them blank- when faced with terms gained from Celtic, Hebrew, Egyptian or Berber. In this case the word they cannot see is well known in Hebrew as in Persian – as ruach in Hebrew (esp. Genesis 1:2) and as rukh in Persian.
When working through the Voynich map, section by section and detail by detail, hunting out examples in art and architecture and commentaries in older sources, one chicken-and-egg problem nagged at me.
‘Did the chess-piece inspire the merlons, or did such merlons inspire the form given that chesspiece?’
I scarcely mentioned that part of the research in the summaries published through Voynichimagery, but I’ve decided to write up a little more now for any readers who feel impelled to follow a thread to the heart of an historical maze. That will be in the next post in a couple of weeks’ time.
Until then, here is one detail from a mid-fourteenth manuscript to think about.
The manuscript was made in Persia very shortly before the Plague arose and thus only a very few years before, in France, the ‘November crocodile’ was drawn in grisaille in that Franciscan missal.
As you see, here the rook (Persian rukh) maintains the same form it had in the eleventh century when the chess-players mosaic was made in Piacenza.
Notice in this illustration the hats with stiff, back-turned brims, too, and the garment fastened under the right arm.
Also, from a drawing placed on the back of the Voynich map
a high-collared version..