The author’s rights are asserted.
Part 1 in the current series includes a link to one of Koen Gheuens’ blogposts. If you followed that link you’ll appreciate Koen’s generosity in sharing the work that he and some other members of a Voynich forum were doing.
I meant this post to be about that work and why its approach is exceptional, but because an important point is how their approach differs from most, I think it may be useful to introduce it by considering the problem of provenance-research.
Ever since 1912, Voynich writers have continually confused one kind of provenancing for another, apparently because they did not pause to think through their aims in those terms.
Provenance just means “Where it came from”; the problem arises because of how “it” is assumed defined.
Provenance-research can be divided into three kinds, the first being research into how a finished, or nearly finished object has travelled from where and when it was made to where it is now.
This can be described as ‘chain-of-ownership’ provenance, or – because is primarily associated with descriptions provided by librarians, curators and sellers of artefacts – as ‘Catalogue’ provenance.
That sort of research starts from the time the artefact was manufactured, and ends with the latest acquisition. So in a sense its terminus a quo is finite, but its terminus ad quem indefinite.
The quality of that kind of provenance research can be judged by how severely factual the description is.
To illustrate a near-perfect example of Catalogue Provenance, I’ve chosen that written for a manuscript whose text is written entirely in Tironian shorthand. You will notice that the following description meticulously quotes and dates on palaeographic grounds every post-production inscription (marginalia).
Provenance:  A scriptorium in Northeastern France: suggested by the script (according to Bischoff, Katalog (2004), p. 93 (no. 2356)).  The Benedictine abbey of Saint-Remi at Rheims: its ownership inscription and book curse added to f. 1r in a 10th- or 11th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii qui eum abstulerit anatema sit’; its ownership inscription added to f. 1v and f. 33v in a 13th- or 14th-century script: ‘Liber Sancti Remigii Remensis vol VIIxx et V’; the manuscript is listed as no. ‘CXLV’ in an early 13th-century manuscript catalogue from its library (see Dolbeau, ‘Un catalogue fragmentaire’ (1988), p. 215).  An unknown 19th-century French owner: added a description of the manuscript in French on f. 101 recto.  Thomas Thorpe (b. 1791, d. 1851), London bookseller:  purchased from him by the British Museum in August 1832 (see note on f. [iv] verso).
*numerals in square brackets by the present author.
It would obviously be an error to try provenancing the original manuscript by its marginalia, yet in Voynich studies we regularly see efforts made to create a story for the whole manuscript’s content, and for its place and date of manufacture, from no more than a couple of lines of undated marginalia. That’s one of the things which makes Voynich writings seem so very odd to the wider world of manuscript studies. It’s just a wrong way to go about things.
One reason Voynich studies sees such curious habits as attempting to use marginalia to provenance both ownership and subject-matter, is that when interest in the manuscript was revived in the 1990s, the little book written by Mary d’Imperio was adopted as an easy-to-read ‘bible’ by a number of amateurs, many of whom had no prior acquaintance with medieval studies, historical studies, palaeography, codicology or the technical aspects of art history. The same had been true of William Friedman.
Even before Jim Reeds’ ceased managing the first Voynich mailing list, an idea was gaining ground that provenancing the manuscript was a matter of getting an ‘idea’ and then attempting find ways to persuade others to believe that idea plausible. When a television program was made focussing on legends and various theories, the habit of story-telling was reinforced. The people interviewed were not codiocologists or palaeographers, or specialists in medieval history, but persons who had read d’Imperio and who had a novel theory of their own.
You may read a dozens of equally inventive theoretical Voynich narratives today, but it is rare to find any which do not conflate Catalogue provenance with one form or another of Contents provenance.
On the one hand, Catalogue provenance begins with the object’s manufacture and moves forward in time, tracing the hand-to-hand passage of the object from when it was made until now. On the other hand, Contents provenance involves tracking back from the time of manufacture to discover how the text(s), images and materials came to be at last in the place where they came together to make the object/manuscript in question.
So Contents provenance ends at the point where Catalogue provenance begins.
Wilfrid Voynich was the first to conflate the two when he guessed the manuscript made in thirteenth century England, and then relied on nothing but his imagination to assert the whole content of the manuscript created in thirteenth century England, and then interpreted all the contents in terms of what he imagined that thirteenth-century Englishman, Roger Bacon, would write about.
Provenance of this sort rightly asks, “How did these materials and contents come to be employed in the making of this artefact?
Research of this sort, if you think about it, must require require research-parameters and informing sources rather different from those of catalogue-provenance research.
Consider the range, geographic and temporal, needed to get the right answer to such questions as ‘Who composed the Psalter?’ or ‘Who is the King David alleged to have composed some, or all of the Psalter’s contents?’ or ‘What is the origin of the script used in this ninth-century Psalter?’
Provenance research has not been widely understood by Voynich writers since 1912, but chiefly because few stopped to think through their aims in those terms.
Point of View – the drawings
It really doesn’t matter what the modern-day viewer finds easy to understand about pre-modern art. What matters is how the first person to give that image form, and the person who put it in the present manuscript thought, and how they expected their drawing would be understood by their contemporary audience.
For that, it is nonsense to imagine that the modern viewer can pick and choose ad.lib. which images or details they will consider important. If it were true, as it is not, that you can identify the ‘important’ details because (to quote a real Voynich meme) they will be “the most specific and unambiguous” then you’d say the most important detail in this image of King David was his fleur-de-lys crown! But the crown is not unambiguous – you certainly cannot take it to signify that there was ever a King David on the throne of France, or that a French, or indeed an English, king wrote the Psalms.
and so again to the Merlons.
Just as King David lived in c.1000 BC on the other side of the Mediterranean but might be pictured in late medieval western Christian art with a crown as sign of ‘royalty’, and the crown appear variously as one of French-, English-, German-, Persian-, Byzantine- or Spanish type, or with the maker’s idea of a ‘foreign-looking’ crown, so too a structure whose walls had no merlons, or had merlons of some other kind, might still be drawn with those which Voynich writers call ‘swallowtails” and others describe as the Sicilian-Valle d’Aosta type,
Another common error has been to imagine that every drawing is a drawing from life. Yet another has been to imagine that if we find a motif in a manuscript, it is necessarily something copied from some other manuscript.
If we were attempting to research the ‘swallowtail’ motif(s) lineage in art as it might relate to the Voynich map’s examples, we should have to begin from the manuscript’s early fifteenth century date and follow the motif back in time, across a much broader geographic range than is needed to describe the chain-of-ownership and the range of sources and media would have to be broader than Voynich-related writings or only medieval manuscripts.
What Koen Gheuens and his friends did was to carefully frame their question in terms of a specific aim: as he puts it, to discover where, within the Latin west, examples survive of drawings in which merlons are drawn as ‘swallowtails’.
It’s a perfectly reasonable aspect of Content research.
Were the question a broader one, examples would have to be sought in manuscripts and in various other media from the time the first instance of the flat sort of ‘swallowtail’ merlons are attested – round about the eleventh century – until the Voynich manuscript’s date (c.1405-1438).
In that case, the examples would certainly include the next image, though found in mosaic. Dated to the eleventh century, it comes from Piacenza, a town that has cropped up several times in relation to Beinecke MS 408, and first in Reeds’ comments on the Voynich ‘gallows glyphs’ (so called). In this blog, we’ve referred to Piacenza in discussing the assignment of month-to-emblem in the Voynich calendar.
A black ‘swallowtail’ rook is seen in the lower-left hand corner.
Piacenza lies in a region that by now will be fairly familiar to regular readers.
Koen’s post carefully explains too that (a) he had not intended to include extant buildings and (b) swallowtail merlons seen on castles today were not necessarily present, or present in that form, during the fifteenth century.
He was wise to make that point.
The nineteenth century’s ‘Gothic’ revival saw various forms of merlon added to older and to contemporary structures but even examples asserted accurate reconstructions can be problematic.
Take Piacenza’s Palazzi Communale, popularly known as the Palazzo Gotico. The building, or a good part of it, was certainly standing in the thirteenth century, but like most medieval buildings, its architectural history is complex. The Italian wiki [HERE] should provide food for thought.
The subject of Tironian notes has been raised often in Voynich studies. See for example d’Imperio’s The Voynich Manuscript: an Elegant Enigma, and entries to the first (Reeds’) mailing list, Pelling’s book of 2006 or his blog ciphermysteries… for a start.