Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 3b

From my point of view, the most interesting element in this direction taken in Voynich studies is the ‘blank’ which occurs at points where the researchers might be expected to ask themselves the most obvious questions: In this case “why do I – and does he – have to guess“?

Not only Lynn Thorndike, but Dorothea Singer, T.A. Sprague [1] and the keeper of manuscripts at Oxford University found themselves for all their many years of concerted study of medieval manuscripts, unable to explain in detail the subject of a single image by comparison with any among the (literally) tens of thousands of manuscripts which these experts knew and had studied with close attention.

1.  linked post includes Sprague’s response when consulted by Brigadier Tiltman.

The answer is not the catch-cry of “cipher” because what we see is imagery enunciated using  forms and style (not just objects) which fall outside the bounds for that Latin western imagery with which these people were so deeply acquainted – and in many cases acquainted too with a large corpus of Byzantine and ‘Arab’ manuscripts. It is a near-invariable aspect of efforts to force interpretation to suit an imagined “European cultural content” that issues of style and form  – the basic grammar of visual languages – are dismissed in the main, and have rarely been addressed at all. Picking one detail from a whole manuscript as ‘like’ something in the Voynich manuscript, while discarding all the rest. is not a useless exercise but one fraught with the risk of following Newbold’s path. Overall context and stylistics are what make a detail’s perceived likeness a valid comparison, or one ephemeral, or (as with genetics and spiral nebulae) merely fantastic.

To assert, as some have done, that the reason T.A. Sprague could not recognise any of the photostat images shown him was that he was accustomed only to ‘beautiful’ manuscripts is – to put it politely – a guess; a plausible rationalisation. It has no basis in fact.

Sprague travelled in the Americas as a botanist and taxonomist. He also spent time in northern India. And he spent forty-five years as a member of staff at  Kew gardens, fifteen of them “as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium before retiring in 1945.”  Decades of his working life were spent classifying and labelling plants from Europe, Asia and the Americas. His commentary on the Dioscoridan corpus required him to read and compare the imagery and labels (at least) in texts written in Latin, Greek and Arabic.[2]  I think we might fairly conclude that he would have had no difficulty in the 1950s identifying anything presented in a photograph, or in a text where the habit was to picture a one-to-one correspondence.  What stumped him, I’d suggest, was partly the quality of the photo-stat copies, and more that our imagery has not the conception of ‘realism’ that is found in the classical and the European tradition.

Similarly, Lynn Thorndike[2] recognised none of the imagery  as similar to any in those thousands of manuscripts, written on the subject of medieval science and magic, which he read in researching his own magnum opus.

2. L. Thorndike,  History of Magic and Experimental Science  runs to 8 volumes. Vols 1 and 2 are available online through the internet archive.

All-in-all the answer in logic and, I’d argue, in fact, is that our manuscript’s contents do not  derive from the Greco-Latin tradition, and that is  why its imagery has so consistently bewildered those acquainted with no other. It is not that the Greco-Latin attribution was arrived at by eliminating any other: no other had been contemplated so far as I could discover on first contacting other researchers in 2010 – after completing my own preliminary assessment of the manuscript without reference to any other commentary.

Since I’ve begun speaking personally, I might add that I find it fascinating to see how these commentators – often highly intelligent, rational and perceptive people – were unable to realise that the only argument for the content’s having a Latin genesis – in matter or in enunciation –  was Wilfrid Voynich’s initial notion that the manuscript not only looked like a Franciscan product, but was the original work of Roger Bacon. To that latter idea, the manuscript has consistently failed to provide support, and otherwise it is only appropriate to describe the artefact as ‘not inconsistent’ with European manufacture.

No one seems to have paused to ask another obvious question: “What if it isn’t? What if it is not only not by Roger Bacon, but its content is not product of the western Latin traditions?”.   It just didn’t happen.

Many of the researchers in the pre- and post-world war II period were also – to be blunt about it – effectively visually illiterate.  None seem to have been aware that pre-modern pictures, like letters, are drawn objects which (again like letters), encode information. It is not enough to look ‘at’ them; they have to be read. Like writing.

As analogy: if you presented the word “C-O-W” to an illiterate person, explaining that it meant ‘cow’, that person might look at the image blankly and then tell you that it couldn’t be a cow, because what you had drawn bore not the least resemblance to the animal they knew. On the other hand, if the letters “M-O-Q” are arranged as shown below, they give the impression of a sitting cat.  That form of ‘word’ the illiterate person might recognise (or think he did), but in the end he’d be still unable to read or write a word of English. In effect, the second course is that followed by Newbold in interpreting the drawings. Others have completely de-contextualised, or artificially and often just to suit a theory on which they were set, re-contextualised the imagery – which compounds the problem.


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How images of the pre-modern era encode information is entirely a product of their native time, place and cultural attitudes. Just like writing. And like writing, pre-modern images are informed by internally consistent ‘rules’ which enabled communication with their intended audience.

So it is simply not true that “anyone with two eyes” has equal ability in art analysis. Some people have got a flair for it, others do not.  And the extent to which modern western expectations of ‘photographic realism’ have reduced not only the general ability to read non-realist imagery, but the understanding that imagery must be read as a language is read, is well demonstrated by writings in this field of study. 

Even allowing for the fact that the manuscript’s imagery includes relatively little originating from the western (Latin) Christian tradition of manuscript art – as Steele sensed in 1928 and Panofsky realised instantly in 1931-  any rational assessment of the fact that there is no solid evidence for the manuscript’s containing “science” of the modern sort should have seen that notion, at least,  discarded long ago.

As it happens, the manuscript’s imagery is not like that in Jewish works from central Europe, either.



2 thoughts on “Wilfrid’s spell-binder: 3b

  1. Good going, Diane! I’m hoping you will find a bound volume of Fray Sahagun’s “Florentine Codex”: folio-by-folio of each topic written in Spanish AND Nahauatl –on-line. I’ve just finished ‘book 11 “Earthly Things” — Fabulous (herbs/yerbas, insects (including silkworm larva and many butterflies, trees which bark is used to make paper (amatl). There is much more … I hope you will visit the on-line book which can be read by the document reader. I wish I could recall the url — but I’m pretty certain you are already wa-a-a-y ahead of me!


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