O’Donovan notes 12.1: The Merlons thing.

c.2500 words

The author’s rights are asserted.

First, let’s put that detail into physical perspective.

From the Yale facsimile edition, we find that the entire Voynich map measures, overall near enough to 420 mm square. That’s 16.5 inches each side.

Within that map, the roundel containing the detail of interest measures close to 100mm (3.9 inches)

Within that, the structure given crenellations measures just 30mm by 45mm (1.2 x 1.8 inches).

.. for reasons I’ve never seen explained, it’s a habit among Voynich writers to omit or truncate the flanking arcs, thus reducing the detail to the size of an ordinary postage-stamp – about 25mm (1 inch) square.

That’s about the length of your thumb’s top joint. Try taking your finest pen and reproducing it there some day when you’re bored at work. 🙂

What does this tell us about this detail-in-a-detail-in-a drawing?

First, that given the physical constraints on the draughtsman, this detail isn’t likely to be a detailed and literal portrait of any single structure or location, simply because the scale precludes inclusion of enough details to clearly distinguish one structure from all others of similar form within a purely literal genre.

The same constraints tell us that for a given place or location to be clearly identifiable, some of what is included should be there for its resonance in terms of medieval iconographic forms: that is for its existing symbolic or metaphorical hooks.

To put this another way, the constraints imposed by the available space mean that the structure must serve as token for that place and while some elements may indeed be literal, others will not or may not be so.

Consider the difference between what you would produce if asked to present a literal portrait of your local place of worship, as distinct from marking it on a map. In the first place you would need to add far more detail to show the ways in which it differs from all other churches built in the same architectural style, but in the second case, you might just draw one of these:

or you might use a more literal-looking token, detailed only enough that a visitor will connect your drawing to a local building when she or she comes across it – even though the drawing is in no sense a literal ‘portrait’. Like this:

The idea of a ‘token’ image embraces the purely symbolic and the merely generic.

A token can include some literal details (such as the rose window, if your local building has one), but omits all non-essentials and can even include non-literal details – your local building may not have a cross on its door, for example. As you see, this drawing doesn’t show whether the building is made of stone, of brick, of stucco or of wood, which a literal portrait would have to do.

Given the very limited space assigned this detail in the Voynich map, our default assumption (pending other evidence) must be that for the first maker of this detail, each item he did include here had no less weight and importance than any other, regardless of whether one item is drawn in a way generic, symbolic or literal.

It is irrelevant that one or another of the inclusions springs more readily to a modern eye; it is quite as much a mistake to ignore the form of the central tower or the subsidiary towers or the square merlons as the fishtails.

So then, to the degree that the drawing must necessarily be reduced to whatever the maker considered essential elements, what we have is a token, but one hopes a significant token, for the intended place.

For the moment we set aside the various theories which have the Voynich map a description of some poetic, theological or other set of ways. We’ll start from an initial position that the map is not of some otherworld and see how we go.

Given a combination of an intention to communicate information of some kind, and the constrained space available, we now consider each of those features the first maker considered distinctive – even definitive – and suppose further (for the time being) that the place indicated did exist to so late as c.1440.

The structure is placed between two great curving ‘walls’ though it isn’t immediately clear whether those are meant for topographic or for man-made forms. Certainly no defensive walls would be found extending across the lowest point of a very narrow and very steep river valley – a moment’s thought will show you why.

At the front we see a great entry-way opening directly onto what is shown (by a fairly-well known convention in late medieval cartography) as a waterway, shallow and having only one opening. Today we don’t conceive of the Mediterranean as a large shallow ‘bay’, but evidently that’s how the maker viewed it and in fact that’s exactly what the Mediterranean is. By comparison with the open ocean, the Mediterranean is shallow and it does have only one natural opening to the deep sea, through the straits of Gibraltar.

So, without presuming which elements in the Voynich detail convey information by literal depiction and which by symbolic value, consider the remaining items included.

The enclosed area is drawn about twice as wide as it is deep. It is enclosed on three sides by walls.

Inside those walls is drawn nothing but one great tower, apparently round since two others which are square are found outside the back wall and are clearly shown so.

That central tower is evidently distinctive in having three storeys (assuming one window-token equals one storey). The roof is tall and conical, but seems to sit within the tower’s upper edge, which suggests that between the tower proper and the roof is an upper parapet or walkway.

Behind the rear wall, there is placed to our left one of those square towers and this has its top coloured blue, the same pigment used to colour an adjacent area. Where that ends, to the right, is a second square extramural tower, this having its top coloured yellow.

We may suggest, then, that perhaps here the blue is used to denote water, so the front entryway is a water-gate and the tower to the left, outside the walls is a water-tower. If that is what the maker intended, then perhaps the lines of blue which we see following along the top of those curving flanks could indicate aqueducts of the sort so often seen in Roman-era settlements, especially in the near east. But, on the other hand, those lines may only indicate some natural descent of fresh water down steep hillsides. No need to decide yet which the maker intended. The analysis is still in its early stages.

As we look for sites fulfilling our criteria so far, the nature of the less easily discerned will serve as a test for each possible identification.

And now at last we come to the merlons.

There are at least two, and possibly three forms of merlon shown on these walls – the ordinary square merlons and what might be described as two forms of fishtail merlons or, perhaps, an attempt to draw twice the same form of fishtail merlons, but whatever the case, the form given those across the front appear different from those seen on the right side of the rear wall.

As you’ll see (further below) there wasn’t just one form of fishtail merlon, but of course the difference may again be due to the scale at which the draughtsman was obliged to work.

Since we don’t yet know when the drawing was first enunciated, so even if we date our present copy 1405-1438, some effort will be needed to determine by research which elements are employed for their symbolic information and which are more nearly literal within this token. Nor can be even guess, as yet, whether the intended place and structures remained standing beyond 1440 AD, even if they existed to that time.

A common and very typical error in Voynich studies is to begin by assuming that one can identify the place by adopting Mary d’Imperio’s suggestion that its resembled a castle, and then start collecting photographs of such examples of castles having fishtail merlons as exist today, without doing any deeper investigation of the date to which such merlons are dated – in fact many examples seen in Europe today are the result of romantic nineteenth-century ‘renovations’.

Merlons – geographic range.

Merlons of various kinds, including the fishtail type are attested during the medieval centuries from as far north as the Black Sea to as far south as Egypt, and from Asia Minor to western Europe. Some are attested by contemporary writings, some by relics in near-ruins, others by what little still remains in structures often destroyed and re-built since those times.

These facts are well-known to historians and to students of military architecture, and have been reprised and documented often enough in contributions to Voynich studies, that there is really very little excuse one can offer, in 2023, for such misleading assertions as – and I quote:

The swallowtail merlons on the Rosettes** castle and city walls tie the manuscript to southern-German or northern-Italian contexts.

The term ‘context’ avoids saying ‘locations’ while implying it; the substitution provides a loophole, so that in future the theorist can claim the assertion applies to any time when any southern German or northern Italian may have been in any place – including the Black Sea, or Egypt, or somewhere in between such as Constantinople.

But asserting that the type is tied to southern Germany and northern Italy is easily disproven and here again, the work has already been done and more than once since 2010. If readers find no reference to the earlier contributions or to these Sicilian precedents shown below (again) it may be because those researchers have relied too heavily on specifically Voynich-related sites rather than turning to external and more impartial [non-wiki] sources.

The following three images all show buildings in Sicily, and all having their merlons in original style(s), according to our best current information. The first example dates to the tenth century and it is said the merlons which had crumbled over time were accurately repaired; the second example is dated to the twelfth century; the third to the thirteenth century, from which time we see such forms first used by the Franco-Savoyard Challant family* in the Valle d’Aosta, west of Milan.

*They built the famous Fénis castle, among others, and it remained in the possession of the Fénis branch of the lords of Challant until 1716.

Notice the varied forms given these older fishtail merlons in Sicily.

TENTH CENTURY: This part of the tower dates to the period of Arab rule in Sicily (i.e. from 902AD). Before that time, the island had been part of the Byzantine empire. It was gradually re-taken by Christian forces and freebooters in numerous battles between 999 and 1139AD. The Latins who finally took it decided to keep it rather than returning it to the Byzantine emperor, although Byzantine and Arab influence remained strong in the island to the end of the 13thC.
c. TWELFTH Century.
THIRTEENTH CENTURY – Palazzo Corvaja, Taormina.

Nick Pelling’s historical research led him to made a fair case for the present manuscript’s having been made in, or near Milan.

He did begin by expecting all the content would be the original composition of single Latin Christian author who had lived contemporary with the present manuscript’s manufacture. This was in keeping with most theoretical Voynich narratives to that time (2006)

Unlike the creators of many other Voynich narratives, Pelling adopted standard scholarly ethics and used accepted methods, while taking pains to consider the codicological evidence and, as best he could, to date and describe the manuscript’s palaeography. All this in addition to attempting to explain the whole work in the light of his studies of late medieval cryptology.

Pelling was (so far as I know) the first among the Reeds’ list generation of Voynich writers to pay attention to the implications of the script’s “4o” form, while being chiefly interested in its presence in some early fifteenth-century Milanese ciphers.

Pelling read the Voynich map as a city-plan or city-scape rather than a map in any narrower sense.

Unlike many other creators of variants on the traditionalist narrative, Pelling laid out for his readers the course of his own research. He gathered and then presented and cited honestly the full range of precedents and sources he found; he explained his reasoning and the data used to inform that reasoning. He was prepared – within limits – to debate his own findings as few later traditionalists would do, and as some have never done. Even more in keeping with the better type of scholarship, Pelling himself published comments and responses made to his work – the positive and the negative, both. This sort of open-intelligence attitude attracted so many researchers that to just one of the posts listed below he received more than 600 comments.

Pelling represents the last flicker of that energetic, co-operative and actively debating atmosphere which initially gave the first mailing list under Reeds such energy and which led rapidly to numerous new insights still being re-discovered by those living in the present ‘groundhog day’ fog. Thereafter the rise of a ‘believe my theory or else’ and degradation of ethics and standards in the online arenas saw debate and any honest engagement with informed dissent constantly discouraged or disdained by the more ambitious theorists until today one finds little activity of that kind in any Voynich arena.

Whether any of the Voynich research published since 2006 has moved Pelling’s own opinions on any point, I cannot say. It is something which readers must discover for themselves.

Below are linked two of Pelling’s earlier posts. one about the larger drawing and the other about the detail presently of interest, I add a link to a post made by Koen Gheuens in 2017 and, because it tracks the history of this particular ‘groundhog day’, a post made for this blog about 18 months ago. Perhaps after that discussion of Pelling’s contributions to the study I should add that he and I differ on a great many points, especially those invoking one or other of the manuscript’s drawings. 🙂

more on the backstory in an earlier post at this blog:

  • D.N.O’Donovan, ‘Swallowtailsvoynichrevisionist (October 8th., 2021)

In the next post, we’ll move from surviving examples in Sicily to those which begin to appear from about the 13thC in the Franco-Savoyard Valle d’Aosta.

The Valle d’Aosta is not on the Venetian side of Italy, but in an area which will have become familiar to any readers who laboured through our analyses of the calendar’s ‘July’ and ‘November’ emblems. That is, a region between Milan-Genoa and adjacent to regions in which forms of Occitan were spoken during the middle ages – including Genoa. In the map detail shown below, the marker for Valle d’Aosta is seen slightly left of centre at the top of the image.

Valle d’Aosta in the mountains west of Milan, above the Lombardy plain.

Dear email-correspondents … Pt 1.

This post has been shortened and edited, after the author was ‘eldered’ by older and kinder (and non-Voynich-connected) friends.

The last couple of weeks have brought some interesting correspondence.

Some of the email-writers complain that they can hardly refer to original work I published online if it’s no longer online. One describes me as ‘the Gordon Ramsay of Voynich studies’ and a couple more echo the sentiment with less humour. The most interesting invites me to write an addendum for their planned paper about the Voynich plant pictures. The subject is ‘mnemonic elements’.

While I declined the offer, I appreciate the fact that those authors got the timeline right. It is quite true that I was the first to describe the plant-pictures as containing – usually in the position of the ‘roots’ – mnemonic devices which serve as additional commentary on the plants forming the subject of each drawing. The information was not well received at the time. Somewhat later, Don of Tallahassee began using the word, was brave enough to mention his source, and while he received a poor reception, the ‘idea’ began to become more popular although those using it seemed to think that a mnemonic was little more than a simple ‘associative doodle’. One person hunted d’Imperio, found a reference to Frances Yates’ book about Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) and claimed that the analytical studies I’d published were ‘nothing new’. This made the word ‘mnemonics’ acceptable to many, though I’d already explained that Yates’ book had nothing to offer, and that readers hoping to understand how these elements work in plant drawings should begin with the studies by Mary Carruthers, which would not explain the Voynich pictures but would give some idea of the complexity and sophistication of mnemonic techniques in a world before printing, and where many remained illiterate all their lives.

The reason I cannot provide the commentary those authors want is that the details in the Voynich plant pictures are devised to supplement information about the plants referenced by a given drawing, so that if the authors’ analyses and identification is flawed, the mnemonic will either make no sense or will conflict with their posited identifications. There is no easy set of correspondences, and the mnemonic elements are no key to understanding a drawing, but are a helpful means to cross-check a developing analysis of any Voynich plant-drawing because they are very well informed and refer to the plants’ common uses and value for commerce. They are quite unlike the simplistic devices used in western herbals of the type Aldrovandi called ‘the alchemists’ herbals’ which (by comparison) read as a bit flat-footed and leaden.

I won’t name those authors yet, but once their paper is published and the risk of its content’s ‘co-opted’ that much less, I’ll direct readers to that paper.

In terms of the manuscript’s story, one can map the rise of poor practice in parallel with the rise of a ‘central European’ theory, and the consequent shift of focus from investigation and research aimed at better understanding the manuscript to a focus on promoting and attempting to persuade others, of that imaginative story, or of some other.

But the effort to promote a theory was accompanied for the first time by a refusal to engage with persons whose research (and I mean research beyond picture-matching) constituted opposition to the theory. Again, purely as a matter of fact, those who refused to discuss or engage in debate and who behaved as if their theory was the only ‘logical’ position were promoting the ‘central European Rudolfine’ sort of story.

I’m not sure whether they also brought to the study a particularly obnoxious practice, one which might be described as plagiarism at one remove or ‘deniable plagiarism’.

I’ve been watching its affects in this study for more than a decade, though it certainly began before 2008, and before Nick Pelling’s experience in 2011.

What happened in 2011?

Well, Nick was gob-smacked by a particularly glaring example of the most sickening of all forms of plagiarism- what you might call ‘plagiarism at one remove’ or ‘disownable plagiarism’. It involves conning some third party to ‘launder’ the stolen property and the phenomenon has become so common in Voynich studies that it is an important reason so few eminent and independent scholars are now willing to address problems presented by Beinecke MS 408.

Nick described his experience so well that I won’t try to improve on it.

In his case, the (fairly-) innocent third-parties weren’t Voynicheros but employees of a television company.

Here’s the crux (emphasis is mine):

 It wasn’t even that they were ignoring me, but rather that they gave every impression of trying to re-create my results by other means so as to avoid having to credit (or even name-check) me.

Nick treats the issue by normal standards of fair and unfair.

I tend to see it in terms of its corrupting the normal, and formal standards of scholarly research – of integrity versus corrupt practice.

I’m not criticising ‘new comers’ who’ve been conned into thinking they are exploring for the first time some ‘idea’ presented to them as if never before explored.

On the contrary, I think the amateurs are being badly misused, their enthusiasm abused and their reputations as honest individuals likely to be demeaned in the long run.

It also means that the study sees an endless ‘re-invention’ of matter already studied, but of which studies a majority are left in ignorance.

I should probably offer a current example so I’ll take a fairly easy and current topic – the ‘swallowtail merlons’ theme which is undergoing another revival.

I’d like to say that the topic was being ‘revisited’ or ‘re-considered’ but it’s shaping up as another of those ‘groundhog day’ conversations, whose only joy is ‘team spirit’ and where all involved appear to be oblivious of what has been said, thought and argued about it since 1996.

Some of the guys engaged in the ‘revisiting’ are very nice people. It’s rather depressing to see them repeating mistakes made quarter of a century ago.

But you might like to consider what Koen reports of it, in his latest post, and then compare that material with what turns up if you search Reeds’ mailing list and Pelling’s blog for ‘swallowtail’ ‘fishtail’ ‘dovetail’ and ‘Ghibbeline’ (Reeds list) and ‘merlons’ and ‘castle’ (Pelling’s blog). Most of the references in those sources, reflecting individuals’ ongoing research come with their cited sources.

It’s a pity that the posts from Rich Santacoloma’s mailing list haven’t yet been issued as a searchable database.

With many – even most – of Nick’s opinions I disagree. I find his efforts at iconological analysis ill-informed. But I’d bet there’s not a single instance of his trying to pretend another person’s insight his own, or any instance of his pretending that the research conclusions reached by any other person was just an ‘idea’ wafted to him on the wind by reason of some innate ‘genius’. He does not expect others to do the work of researching ‘an idea’ for him, or engage in ‘deniable plagiarism’ either.

I have a high opinion of Koen’s intellectual integrity, too, and if so much of what is being offered now by his forum- team reads to other readers as earlier research ‘label-stripped’, I’d lay odds he doesn’t know it is.

In the next post, I’ll treat the earliest phase of the ‘swallowtail’ discussion in Voynich studies and comment on some of the more common errors in the way the Voynich drawing has been treated. The oldest and most persistent error has been to forget that the subject of study is supposed to be a drawing in a six-hundred year old manuscript, and what significance might be implied by this motif. One can hardly determine this fairly complex question by a tour of such ‘Ghibbeline’ battlements as happen to survive in the twenty-first century. Sorry.