Another from the vaults: re Gautier Dalche; Scott Westrem (overdue update)

This from a post written in 2009, published in ‘Findings‘ (my research-in-progress blog) on Feb.17th., 2012 and which I’ve just realised should have been modified between those two dates.

addition (23rd November 2016).  A great deal that you find written about the Voynich manuscript – less about the written part of the text than about a given hypothetical (not to say imaginative) ‘history’  –  will be found to exist in a space that is effectively an intellectual vacuum, few writers troubling to employ or even study the wider intellectual context for matters which they invoke in their writing.  It is as if they believed the Voynich manuscript to be a product of some ‘Alice in wonderland’ place, where the usual rules need not apply.  Assertions are made about the imagery which are based on nothing but untested ideas and hypotheses.   The majority do not begin by asking any questions of the manuscript, nor attempting to understand the way imagery is approached and analysed or provenanced in the ‘wider world’ whether in terms of academic study or of practical assessments.   A case in point has been the treatment given folio 86v (Beinecke foliation “folio 85v-and86r”) since I first treated it in detail concluding – and demonstrating –  that neither in its form nor its content, nor in its informing attitudes was it an original product of Latin European culture.  Thereafter, a number of  writers intent on some theory of an all-Latin authorship, or of an all-Christian origin, set about attempting to create ‘alternatives’ compatible with their preferred theory, some making use of my analysis without attribution while altering or failing to explain the map’s orientation or why it bore no relation to the habits of high medieval art or to the intellectual culture of fifteenth century Latin manuscript art.

The drawing had earlier been supposed some sort of plan, or map, but failure to begin by correctly orienting the page, and failure to identify the various landforms, and a more general failure to consider the wider intellectual landscape in which a fifteenth-century map must be located meant that most failed, and some efforts at redefinition were simply ludicrous.  Resistance to contrary information and evidence is one of the more regrettable aspects of theory-driven amateur and independent ‘histories’ and efforts to explain the Voynich imagery and contrasts markedly with the current approach to the written text.  Pelling’s book of 2006, The Curse of the Voynich provides an excellent example of this peculiar split between the way the written and the pictorial texts are approached – even by the same writer – and of how little effort is put into correctly understanding, placing, dating and explaining the imagery. 

Returning to the issue of the map, however, we find those asserting everything in the manuscript is  a Christian European cultural product  most often force comparisons that are inappropriate, clearly inaccurate and stylistically far distant from what the manuscript contains.  More surprisingly, they lack any evidence of informed understanding of the  European tradition itself, whether in terms of intellectual conceptions or of  practical  cartography.  That is to say, a writer is often found to assert that the map belongs within the European  ‘mappamundi’ tradition, or that of the ‘Ptolemaic’ geography,  while making no effort to explain how this idea applies to what the Voynich map actually contains, its stylistic details nor indeed what it contains, at all.  Rene Zandbergen has recently abandoned even the effort to offer “alternatives”, instead floating the notion that the map is no map at all and, as has become usual in this sort of  hypothesis-driven writing, he does not trouble to address the contrary evidence, or to understand the wider (non-Voynich) scholarship.  So prevalent has the habit become of doing no more than attempting to “win by numbers” that it is a general practice among Voynicheros to presume that anything said about the imagery, or about stylistics and related history is a “theory”.  “Evidence” is so regularly nothing more than a narrow selection of things aimed at lending credibility to a circumstantial narrative that a majority cannot recognise the difference between such writing and that where investigation and evidence precedes the forming of any conclusion and opinion.

Those determined that the Voynich map shall be deemed to express a world view wholly European Christian might, at least, take the time and effort to understand what that notion of a “wholly Christian European” sort of map implies.  Apart from the traditions of the cartes marine which influence manuscript art from the early fourteenth century – and to which I have shown some connection can be demonstrated – the  European tradition may be usefully studied by beginning with Dalché’s studies, and thereafter those by Emilie Savage-Smith before considering the wider field.. and a very wide field it is.

I have added a couple more recommendations at the end of this post.


The Ploughed Sea and its ‘Nymphs’

Someone whose comments on the Voynich manuscript (especially folio 86v) would have been very useful probably wouldn’t touch this ‘ugly duckling’. I mean Prof. Patrick Gautier Dalché.

[Scott] Westrem is another scholar whose knowledge of medieval maps and geographies is so well regarded that he was asked in 2000 to review a publication by Dalché – a task not easily or lightly undertaken.  In that book, Dalché had again completely changed the parameters of scholarship by his consideration of a specific – in this case 13thC – work.*

*British Library Cotton MS Domitian [A.] XIII, fols. 114ra-129vb. It is dated to about 1200AD.


Like the Voynich [MS], BL Cotton MS Domitian [A] XIII is a compilation and as I believe is true of the Voynich manuscript, the British Library codex includes navigational matter and topography.  Whether it has, like the other, copies of correspondence or descriptions of churches etc. we may never know.

However, it is worth Westrem’s description of the Cotton MS:

The scribe’s hand is precise, but the characters are very small and much of the content is essentially gibberish (to most modern eyes).

Another of Gautier Dalché’s studies, Du Yorkshire à l’Inde : une “géographie” urbaine et maritime de la fin du XIIe siècle (Roger de Howden?)  I have not yet read, though it does sound exciting, because I will not dismiss out of hand the opinion given by Wilfrid Voynich and tacitly endorsed by a number of scholars in the 1930s and later, that an English source of about Friar Bacon’s time would appear an appropriate comparison for the Voynich manuscript’s appearance.

Bibliography- Nov. 15th., 2014

Dalché’s study,  ‘Liber de existencia riveriarum et forma maris nostri Mediterranei’ refers to British Library Cotton MS Domitian [A.] XIII, fols. 114ra-129vb’

Scott Westrem’s review:

Patrick Gautier Dalché (ed.), Carte marine et portulan au XIIe siécle: Le “Liber de existencia riveriarum et forma maris nostri Mediterranei” (Pise, circa 1200). Review by: Scott D. Westrem in Speculum, Vol. 75, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 465-468.

and see

Scott D. Westrem, Discovering New Worlds: Essays on Medieval Exploration and Imagination. – Reviewed by Sylvia Tomasch in Speculum, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Jul., 1993), pp. 907-909.


Patrick Gautier Dalché, ‘The Reception of Ptolemy’s Geography (End of the Fourteenth to Beginning of the Sixteenth Century)’, in The History of Cartography, Volume 3: Cartography in the European Renaissance, ed. David Woodward (2007).
_______________ with Charles BURNETTAttitudes Towards the Mongols in Medieval Literature: The XXII Kings of Gog and Magog from the Court of Frederick II to Jean de Mandeville‘, Viator [Medieval and Renaissance Studies]  Vol. 22 (1991) pp. 153-168. S.153.
a full List of Publications – to 2015 inclusive) is available online at
I would also recommend:
 Ildar Garipzanov, ‘The Rise of Graphicacy in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages’,  Viator, Volume 46, Issue 2 (2015) pp. 1-21.
Genevieve Carlton, Worldly Consumers: The Demand for Maps in Renaissance Italy (2015).

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