April 1st was a sunny day at Oxford’s Merton College. The annual medieval graduate conference organized by the university’s Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature was in full swing when a spaceship landed, piloted by Alexandra Marraccini: a presentation about the Voynich Manuscript.
Some had wondered if this Voynich talk was really scheduled, or if it was an April fool’s joke: Was someone really going to analyze this pariah manuscript in such a prestigious academic context? Lo and behold, it was really happening.
I will begin by saying that Marraccini is not to be underestimated: she has a background in both medieval manuscript studies and computer science, as well as having worked closely with the Beinecke, Bodleian, and Herzog August Libraries, and mastering a wide range of languages (from her CV: Reading proficiency: German, Italian, French, Middle High German, Baroque German, Latin, Greek (ancient), Middle English. Codicological/palaeographic experience: Latin (both manuscript and incunabulae), Greek (Byzantine), Middle High German, Baroque German, Middle English). Also, as I had supposed, she is not a Voynich newbie, but has been interested in the manuscript for many years: she first heard about it as an undergrad at Yale.
Alexandra Marraccini’s paper is a valuable resource for any Voynich researcher, whether amateur or academic. While we may not all agree with all of the points she makes (and I am sure it will ruffle some feathers) I think as hobbyists we should pay attention and not just shrug off this rare bit of scholarly insight just because it may not provide support for our preferred interpretation of the imagery.
The full text of her presentation, as well as the slides, are available here, although bear in mind that the text is a draft which will undergo some changes (notably the diagram at the end) before publication.
Certainly, some of the ideas presented in the paper will be familiar to many in the Voynich community, such as the parallels with the alchemical herbal tradition. What I found of particular interest is the connection she makes with some lesser-known manuscripts, and I particularly appreciated the analysis of representations of the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah and the rare depictions of menses. I’ll go into those later on the forum, but here I will offer a transcription of my recording of the Q&A which followed the presentation. None of these questions are mine: they are from other medievalists (and one Voynichero, I think you’ll guess which questions those are!).
Q: (sorry I failed to record this question properly, it was about the zodiac section).
A: There are lunar calendars with women but sometimes, they may have been defaced by a later commentator. She can either stand outside the calendar, or in this case, they put the roundel there. It’s not uncommon that calendars are round, as of course menstrual time is cyclical, as we were talking about before, it’s just interesting in this particular case because lunar calendars in the 15th century in other books aren’t often round, although they sometimes are if they have illumination in the center. So you really just have to look at hundreds of manuscripts and make a statistical analysis, but my best guess is that it is done specifically to highlight the centrality of the woman’s role and the body recreating the seasonal cycle of the heavens, which, the microcosm and the macrocosm map onto each other in the alchemical discourse, so it’s another example of that.
Q: What about the dragon that we find walking about the roots of the plant, is it just the dragon as a means to produce fire, so a means to the transformation in alchemy?
A: Actually, those are quite common to herbals, even non-alchemical herbals in both the Dioscoridian and pseudo-Apuleian tradition. Sometimes they refer to the property of the plant itself to cure venom, sometimes they refer to the fiery nature of the humoral properties of the plant. There are lots of fictive and real animals documented because the bestiary tradition is embedded in the herbal tradition as well. So those are, they are used in alchemy as well, but they exist in the herbal tradition.
Q: I was hoping you could tell us more about some of the scholarly theories about the language, and which theory you think holds the most water?
A: One of the problems with decoding the manuscript is that people who work on mathematical cryptography are not often paleographers. So what would happen is there would be, like, 26 letters, or a certain number of letters encoded in the digital alphabet, and does that really express all the diacritical marks etc in the manuscript? There was some evidence found that the manuscript reflects the structure of a natural language, but then we also have knowledge of period ciphers, like Vigenere ciphers. And basically, that’s not something we know [ed. note: if it’s a natural language or a cipher].
So, recently there’s a linguist named Stephen Bax who claimed to have deciphered the manuscript, the same way that about 40 other people have in the past, which is to say by using the known names of plants. The problem is there aren’t Linnean names for the plants, and the Pseudo-Apuleian names might be relatively consistent but their spelling certainly isn’t, and the order in which the folios of the Voynich manuscript were arranged has been changed around, so you can’t use the plants’ names, I think, as plain text to decipher the manuscript. Just from a cryptographic perspective, you don’t even know, even if it is written in Northern Italy: is it written in the vernacular, is it in Latin, maybe a French-Italian combination? So there have been both computer based and human based approaches to decrypting the manuscript… I’m not a linguist but the linguistic approaches tend to ignore the history of the herbal tradition and the problems with using stars or plants as plain text words.
Q. Have you read Nick Pelling’s book, or any of his work?
A. Yeah, I know he keeps a blog as well, and it’s quite good. But at this point, we can see the zodiacs pretty clearly, we know what those are, we might even be able to recognize the species of plants, although there are some people who claim to see a New World sunflower, which is a pretty contentious thing, dating-wise. And I just think, without knowing anything about the mechanism of the cipher, or of the tradition from which the manuscript originated… I mean if we could definitively tie it to a certain type of herbal production, maybe we could start to speculate about the way the folios were rearranged, or which plants were missing, but I just don’t think that, for now, that approach would work.
Q. Nick identifies a strong Milanese link, through the Sforza and the Visconti, and I find that very compelling…
A. I’ve seen the Visconti Sforza tarot cards at the Bodleian, and I know they did in fact collect esoteric material. But the problem is, this [ed. note: the Voynich] doesn’t get mentioned in their archive as one of the things they held. Until it shows up in the Rudolphine court, there isn’t documentation… it’s possible, I’m not saying it isn’t, but without confirmation I’m not going to assert that it’s true. I mean the only thing that we know about this manuscript is the dating and when it turns up in a series of 16th century letters. So, perhaps it was associated with the Sforza’s, although it is produced using relatively cheap pigments… if it was a Sforza manuscript, they’re absolutely dripping with gold, and even their alchemical manuscripts are quite expensive.
Q. I’m not suggesting it’s a Sforza manuscript. There’s a character, 4o, that Nick points to which is also found inside the scripts in early 15th century ciphers which were produced for the Visconti or later the Sforza. I’m not suggesting it’s that, but it might have had an influence… anyway that’s his argument, not mine.
A. Well, there is that argument, there are other characters that people have found and linked to other cipher manuscripts. The problem is the Voynich characters are inconsistent within the manuscript, the problem is the repetition of the characters is such that if they were anything like a Vigenere cipher or a period cipher, it would mean far too many consonants. So, I don’t have an opinion on this theory because I don’t think we know enough. But I think, what I want to explore about the manuscript is not trying to decipher the text as a first step, but rather trying to find the origin of the images, what we can already see.
Q. But do you think, the large foldout sheet, Nick identifies a castle and also other geographical locations…
A. See, this is where Nick is a computer scientist. I really love his blog and he has absolutely wonderful knowledge of cryptographic mathematics, which I did in a past life, but that architecture is similar to so much fictive architecture and manuscript traditions all over Europe… You can find a castle that looks like that castle in an 11th century English herbal. But… you cannot pin that architecture down to being an Italian… It’s tempting, but I just would be extremely hesitant to attribute the style of those buildings to any one city in any part of Europe at any time. Especially given that I could look at his chronicles [ed. note: the previous speaker’s] and manuscripts by Chaucer, and find castles that look like that. So we have to be very very careful, which is why I chose to focus very specifically on this one image of Sodom. So in a way, what has damned the previous scholarship was that we do tend to take these speculative leaps, like Oh, this looks like an Italian city, or it looks like it has Arabic influence or it looks like this, and then all of a sudden you’re seven steps removed. It’s fascinating but it’s also dangerous.
I ended up having some time to talk to her during lunch, but didn’t record that conversation (obviously).
She spontaneously mentioned Arderne’s works as a potentially relevant source, as well as alchemical and esoteric works such as Books of Secrets. The stars in the margins are more common than we think, but often have been lost in other manuscripts due to trimming. The big foldout is, according to her, a sort of a map, but not a literal one, including fictive cities mixed in with other concepts. While we hobbyists may often complain about not enough tests being done on the Voynich, she explains that in fact, what little testing has been done is more than most medieval manuscripts will ever receive.
Some may be disappointed by her reluctance to make more definitive assertions about the Voynich, but I can understand that she would rather err on the side of caution and also, I’m sure there is a lot she will be telling us in the future: she plans to publish more Voynich research, hopefully as a post-doctoral project, ideally in collaboration with other medieval art specialists, which I think would be wonderful.
As she says at the end of her paper, it is not intended as a closing argument, but as a beginning.
I am really glad that there is finally an academic of her caliber, with the adequate qualifications to really bring something useful to the field, and who is committed to giving the Voynich a proper study. It gives me a lot of hope.
This isn’t the big blogpost I’ve been meaning to put up for ages: instead it’s something I would have posted to the forum normally, but since the forum’s had a few hiccups lately I’ll just make a quick post to share it here.
I found the marginalia in this MS quite similar to the marginal stars in the Voynich manuscript’s Quire 20. I don’t know if the star-with-a-tail in the margin of manuscripts is a common occurrence in medieval medical/pharma books, but I’ve never come across such an example before outside of the Voynich “recipe” section:
The MS is a collection of medical recipes, and this particular section is a copy of Arderne’s Practica Chirurgiae. It is slightly too late for the Voynich, although very little is known (England, 16thC, with many later additions), as the various hands who composed and annotated the text are anonymous. A detailed description of Ms. Hunter 135 is available on the Glasgow library’s website.
Are the stars drawn by the original scribes or added by a later owner? Of course I can’t help but wonder if these stars refer to something in the text here or if they are a kind of decorative highlight for a special section of text, especially the first one with its tail.
Apparently this version of Arderne’s work is a much less ornate copy of another Glasgow MS: Hunter 251, which I unfortunately haven’t been able to find fully digitized yet, so I cannot check if there are marginal stars in the other one too.
Are marginal stars with tails present elsewhere? Personally these are the first I’ve found. Let me know in the comments!
Update: I found another, earlier MS from this collection (the Malaga Corpus) Hunter Ms. 185, which is also worth mentioning here: although it is devoid of stars, it does feature a list of recipes, each with a marginal squiggle which brings to mind the Voynich star tails. The initial f’s also form an almost gallows-like shape. Two examples:
In Marco Ponzi’s extensive study of the Voynich Zodiac roundels, he describes Taurus in the following terms:
“The bull seems to be eating from a cylindrical manger, or drinking from a cylindrical well or bucket. It has been impossible to find any parallel for this detail. I think this point deserves further investigation.”
For a while now, I’ve been searching for something that might explain where the image of Taurus near a cylindrical manger might come from. I found nothing in astrological imagery. Even outside of zodiacs, most of the medieval images of bulls that I found represented them in nature, or interacting with other animals and people, or grazing in fields, or eating out of rectangular troughs. The cylindrical manger seemed elusive.
In this seasonally appropriate post, I will be exploring the possibility that the Voynich Taurus could be derived from the imagery of Nativity scenes. In Nativities, the round manger is a lot more common than in any other genre of medieval art. It is often represented as a structure made of wattle or some other type of basketry, which offers a compelling explanation for the criss-crossed pattern that is present on the manger in the Voynich image.
Bulls in Nativity scenes are most commonly portrayed near the manger where Jesus is laying, gazing upon him. Their position in the scene conveys either that they are adoring him (based on the 7th C Gospel of pseudo-Matthew) or that their breath keeps the baby warm (according to oral tradition).
There were variants of course, and medieval artists sometimes presented the bull as rather unconcerned with Jesus’ birth, or focusing on the food.
In most nativity imagery however, the bull is not portrayed eating, but rather looking on, with his head hovering just above a manger, usually the one Jesus is laying in, but not always.
The bull with a round manger motif in Nativity imagery is found in many places, as these examples show. Geographically, this iconography alone cannot really help us to pinpoint a local tradition which the Voynich image would fit. Chronologically, however, the period is very restricted: all of the images I found were from the mid 14th to the mid 15th century. In this sense, the Voynich Taurus imagery appears to be firmly rooted in its time.
If the Voynich Taurus is based on Nativity imagery, this means that the period of production of the source material was very close to the time of production of the Voynich manuscript: the artist who created the Voynich zodiac roundels was inspired by recent or contemporary material, rather than by an older source.
How would Nativity imagery find its way into a Voynich zodiac roundel? In many medieval works, especially Books of Hours, Psalters, calendars and almanacs, both astrological imagery and biblical scenes can be found. In my opinion, the Taurus roundels could result from the presence of a Nativity in a book of Hours (or other such book) from which the Voynich artist drew his inspiration.
We don’t know what the Voynich text says, but some researchers have suggested that the human figures which surround the central roundels in the Zodiac section could have some relationship with the theme of fertility, pregnancy, or the cycle of life (for example, this one ). If this possibility is entertained, the use of a Taurus borrowed from a Nativity scene would be rather fitting.
EDIT: I want to highlight the importance of the references MarcoP left below. Here is a zoomed image of Vat. Gr. 1087, showing the Aselli:
This image is very close to the nativity images I posted above, especially the Ethiopian example. It opens the possibility of a shift from Aselli to Taurus via the light and dark pair of the bull and donkey in Nativity scenes. But as MarcoP points out, this doesn’t account for the doubling of other signs in the Voynich, so we are still missing many pieces of the puzzle.
In this post I’m going to be taking a closer look at the way in which people in the Voynich manuscript are depicted, paying attention to their poses. Although there are hundreds of nymphs and other people in the various sections, seemingly performing lots of different activities, it appears to me that the range of poses is quite limited. It dawned on me that perhaps I could try to survey these poses and classify them.
What I am going to try to do here, then, is to create a catalogue of the poses which the artist has used in his illustrations. Not all of the Voynich people fall into these categories, (the poses of some of the busier nymphs in the balneo section are unique), but the overwhelming majority of them do. In some cases there are so many nymphs for one pose that I have only selected a few in the examples I give here. This post will be subject to change as I continue to investigate the poses and also taking into account reader contributions. Maybe something will emerge from this at some point.
Pose 1: “The Classic”
One hand on hip/waist or behind, the other arm outwards and upwards, slightly bent.
This is the typical pose for nymphs in the Voynich manuscript zodiac, but it also appears in the balneo section. The pose can often appear to convey a greeting or salutation, or more generally, speech. It does not appear that the pose relates to holding things: the nymphs in this pose in the zodiac section are not actually holding the stars, but rather depicted as connected to them by a line. Exceptions to this could be the people in 85r2 and 86v4, who are actually holding objects: to me these should fall into the next category.
Pose 2: “The Brandish”
This is a variation of the first pose, where one arm is stretched out forward, and not up. It is only found in the balneo section. This pose is generally used when a nymph is holding an object, and conveys a certain impression of power.
Pose 3: The “Hands-off”
In this pose, both hands are behind the back of the nymph, sometimes with the arms outstretched backwards. The nymphs in this pose do not hold objects, except for one who may be cradling the object with her neck/shoulder (contrary to what one might think at first, she is not holding it with her mouth: the object does not connect to it). These nymphs appear to be passive, powerless and rather overwhelmed by the things that are going on around them. In the cases where the arms are outstretched backwards and up, it is tempting to read the pose as an expression of surprise or even fear.
Pose 4: “The Spectator”
Both arms are down, sometimes in a rather uncomfortable-looking position. In the zodiac folios, this pose is only featured in two places: the outer ring of Pisces, and in the dark Aries folio (all of the inner ring, some of the outer ring).It is also present in the balneo section. These nymphs typically don’t hold objects, or engage in any discernable activity.
Pose 5: “The Spread”
Both arms are stretched outwards from the sides of the body, more or less upwards. In one case, it may be explained by the tubing. In the others, not.
This pose could be related to the iconographic tradition of the “orant” pose, or to that of the crucifixion. This study of the imagery in Nicolas Oresme’s translation of Aristotle, the Livre d’Ethiques, shows a pattern of using this pose to depict the incarnation of various virtues. Hildegard von Bingen uses this pose to represent the “Universal Man” in her Liber Divinum Operum . In all of the above examples, the pose is in some way indicative of a virtuous or pious person.
Pose 6: “The Bend”
This pose is exclusive to a few folios in the the balneo section. The nymph is bent over, apparently picking something up with one arm, while the other either lies flat against her side or is slightly bent.
Pose 7: “The Two-Armed Reach”
This pose, in which both arms are stretched out, slightly bent, towards the front, appears mainly in the Zodiac section, and mostly among male “nymphs”, although Virgo and the female half of Gemini are exceptions. It is worth noting that all of the human figures in the Voynich Zodiac’s central roundels are depicted in this pose.
Application: Groups of Nymphs
When we examine groups of nymphs in the balneo section using this classification, the action almost becomes readable. For example, in f75v:
The classification allows us to see that in this illustration, what might at first appear as a homogenous group of linked nymphs is actually two groups, of nymphs doing the “Brandish” around the central “Spectator” nymph. As we have seen, the Brandish is associated with holding something, while the Spectator is a passive posture. The two groups appear to be engaging in some kind of tug-of-war over the central nymph.
The structure above them which connects to each nymphs’ head is also divided in two. The central nymph appears to belong to the left side group, as her head is connected to the left structure, but her body is turned in the opposite direction, facing in the same direction as the right side group. Which side will she end up on?
Among the many mysterious figures in Quire 13, one appears to be of particular importance in the story being illuminated by the illustrator, as he/she has repeated it several times: the nymph holding a ring. We find this motif on three occasions, in three different variations:
Here I would like to introduce another lady, this one from the world of heraldry, who struck me as particularly reminiscent of the third ring-bearing nymph. Meet Mrs. Von Lehwaldt:
This is the coat of arms of the Lehwaldt family, from Germany. Though the line is extinct, this is still the coat of arms of the town of Lawalde. The earliest record of this image is 16th century, but the title was granted in the 12th so who knows when they came up with the bejeweled arm(s).
To be fair, Miss Lehwaldt isn’t the only heraldic figure to sport an oversized ring like the three nymphs in the VMS. There are also rings being held by hands in various other shields, but I did notice a pattern: All of the shields which feature a hand holding oversized jeweled rings like this are from the same area: a part of Germany known as the Mecklenbourg-Strelitz district, in that intermediate area between Pomerania and Brandebourg.
There we also find the arms of the Oertzen family (but the ring is held by two arms), the arms of the Lords of Stargard (as early as the 13th century), those of the town of Furstenberg/Havel and those of the town of Neustrelitz and Strelitz, all featuring the ring being held by a hand. The only exception I’ve found to this localization is a shield of the Royal Lordship of Molina (Spain), which also features an arm holding a ring, but it’s a plain one with no gem. I suppose that there may have been other families who used this motif in the Mecklenburg region, or elsewhere, but unfortunately I haven’t found them yet. This iconographic motif so far seems really very specific to the regions mentioned in this paragraph.
It’s not impossible that the three depictions of women holding rings in the balneo section of the VMS are inspired by this rare, very specific heraldic motif. Of course, this makes me wonder if it is meant to represent a person from the Mecklenburg area, or someone whose ancestry has roots there. It could mean something like “Our baths are so great that we have customers who come all the way from Lawalde!” or “Our baths were improved by the additions made by a specialist from Lawalde”, or even “Something unusual happened while we had a visitor from Lawalde”. The fact that the character is represented on three occasions does seem to make “Miss Lehwaldt” a rather important figure in whatever is being discussed here.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that the balneo section isn’t about balneo at all, and that the nymphs are symbolic of something else: it could be a political or military plan to invade the Lehwaldt’s lands, or a mention of them as allies, competitors or enemies. There are so many possibilities… and sadly, no, I haven’t got a clue what heraldic symbolism might explain the original appearance of the ring-bearer on these shields. If I had to guess I would say this could be a reference to purity or honor: in the Nibelunglied for example, this parallel between Brunhilde’s ring and her virginity is made explicit. A woman holding a ring is a woman who has retained her virtue. But of course that’s just a guess.
Nick Pelling referenced a suggestion made years ago by René Zandbergen that the blank space may have been left by the scribe to leave room for a marginalia type of drawing which never ended up being added. With all due respect to Mr. Zandbergen, who has considerable expertise on the manuscript and whose website (http://www.voynich.nu/index.html) is a real treasure trove of Voynich-related information, I believe that this particular hypothesis of his can be disproven, as will be shown in the following paragraphs.
Mr. Pelling has demonstrated that Quire 13 was originally in a different order than it is now, as evidenced by the connected tubs of 78v and 81r. His work with Glen Claston on the MS brought them to the suspicion that Quire 13 might best be viewed as consisting of two distinct quires. I recently found a page discussing this at Cipher Mysteries (http://www.ciphermysteries.com/2013/05/30/evidence-of-bifolio-reordering-in-the-voynich-manuscript), but it does not provide any link to Claston’s work and I was unable to find any online exposé of the reasons that brought him to consider Quire 13 as consisting of two subquires, (which they call 13a & 13b).
In this post I will be presenting my own reasons for reviewing the folio order, and the original ordering of quire 13 as I see it, which is based on the type of layout and drawings we find within its pages. It may be that Glen Claston had made the same observations as the ones I will be presenting, but as I said, I was unable to find his writings on this subject: I just want to emphasize that I am not trying to plagiarize anyone’s work, and that I cannot claim beyond doubt to be the first person to identify the properties that lead me to my conclusions. Here they are anyway:
Original Quire 13 Folio Order:
76, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83, 84, 78, 81, 75
The section of the manuscript known as Quire 13 displays two types of page layout structures which can be grouped as M and C types of folios:
C type folios feature large Central tubs with clearly visible “walls” and structured sides: these are man-made basins, sometimes connected with tubing. C type folios have no marginal drawings (no figures in the margins).
M type folios feature pools which have no such walls but are marked by wavy edges, possibly indicating natural pools. M type folios however, feature plenty of man-made elements in their numerous Marginal drawings.
It is also worth noting that while the nymphs in M are active, hold objects and carry out all sorts of interactions, the nymphs in section C are almost completely passive, just standing or laying in the water.
Each folio’s recto and verso sides belong to the same category.
The grouping is as follows, and apparently mirrors Claston’s 13a/b division:
M: 76, 77, 79, 80, 82, 83
C: 84, 78, 81, 75
On some folios there are central pools and marginal drawings, but in these cases the pools do not display structured tub walls like the others in the folios classified as C type folios, and they are therefore M types.
When the bifolios are reordered to reproduce this order, we end up with two subquires, quire 13M and 13C. I believe M precedes C in the original ordering, because f76r, with it’s emphasized initial character and vertical key-like sequence of characters, make for a better header for the overall section. However, one or several bi-folios may be missing from 13C (Pelling says this was also postulated by Claston), so this cannot be known for sure at this point.
Within each subquire the order of the bifolios is obvious, as sub-quire 13C necessarily has bifolio 78-81 as its center, however it may be missing folios, or could perhaps just tell a shorter “story” than the one being told in 13M.
Returning to the hypothesis that 81r’s layout may have been intended as leaving room for marginal images, this can now be ruled out, as we can see 81r is a C type page, consistent with its other side 81v, and therefore was not intended to feature drawings in the margins. The layout is likely the result of the scribe’s avoidance of a stain in the margin, as suggested by “Job” in the comments section of the Cipher Mysteries article mentioned above, or a reflection of the nature of the text itself (poem, song, or other).
If anyone has a link to Claston’s work on quire 13, please let me know, I’d love to read it!