A Voynich Presentation at Oxford

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Image credit: @medievaldebbie (Twitter)

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.
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