Starting from scratch – #7b – ‘seeking the Voynich hand’ continued

As far as the script used by southern, and Mizrahi Jews is concerned, we have a number of Bodleian manuscripts to consider, though I am not permitted to show them to you except by direct link. The manuscripts are public property and -domain, but the holding library in this case maintains copyright over the scans and photographs.

At the linked site, I’d like especially to point out among the Jewish manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries  that of NAHMANIDES‘, Torat ha-Adam, in the ‘oriental’  Sephardic cursive script (Catalonia, Spain, 1330)  [p] 55.  [1 And again on that site, a Manuscript of MOSES MAIMONIDES, also in Sephardic cursive, though with additional notes and emendation. 

My third example of this Sephardic cursive hand (from Provence or from Spain) is held by the University of Pennsylvania, and may be shown here.

detail LJS 229 p3

detail UPenn LJS 229 p.3. (1450-1499). Sephardic cursive hand. Provence or Spain. 205 x 145 (144 x 95) mm.

( For a commentary on UPenn LJS 229 see Amey Hutchins, ’13th Century Entanglements, Part 1′, The Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (blog), Sept. 13th., 2013. online)

Sephardic cursive is not uniform, but all the varieties display in common a fair number of those characteristics we’re seeking: the letters are not made ‘sharp’ and the text gives equal visual weight to each of the letter’s elements.  The ‘viliores’ type of manuscript is very often free of diacritics and has the simplest ligatures. Moses Maimonides was from Spain, but moved eastwards as persecutions increased in the land of his birth. With his family, he went first to North Africa and Kairouan (an ancient centre before the Islamic era, renowned for its ascetic Jewish residents and for its knowledge of medicine). By this time, however, it was a Muslim holy site and Moses moved again, this time to Cairo where the family prospered. Moses spoke seven languages of which we know.  His advice was sought by communities of the diaspora across half the world, and his son ABRAHAM was well known for his public works.   (Their story  here). In the next letter, written by his son Abraham in Cairo, we have two forms of thirteenth-century script, for part of it is written in Judeo-Arabic. As a rule we see nothing like the ‘gallows’ letters in Hebrew scripts, but here is a suggestion of something similar. detail letter by Maimonides' son To me, the Voynich text now suggests a possibility that a person first trained to write provincial Greek and/or one of the variant forms of Sephardic cursive – or something like them – had begun copying or writing another, one to which they were less accustomed but which shared the practice – absent from Latin works – of forming horizontals and verticals of equal weight.  Many eastern scripts are of that sort, but at the moment we remain in the Mediterranean. Even within the group described as Sephardic cursive, a process of evolution, and of variation occurs.  Sephardic cursive in eleventh-century Spain is more angular than that of the thirteenth, but in any case we may expect considerable variation. As M.

Jewish codices were .. distinctive in the manner of their preparation.  … lacking the influence of centralized authorities and catering to more widespread literacy, [they]  were produced by private copyists, many for their own personal use, and tended toward greater individualism.  …

M. Crossing Borders..” (review of Bodleian exhibition)

The same is true for Provence. In fact, medieval manuscripts from Provence and Spain are so closely similar appearance and style of manufacture that library catalogues regularly describe a manuscript as being from “Provence or Spain”. This is true even of Latin manuscripts from that region, and I have noted an earlier example in that Spanish copy of Isidore’s Etymologies, attributed until very recently to Provence. Jewish manuscripts from more northern regions, on the other hand, and especially the more formal productions, take a different style.

Still distinctively Jewish, their hand is the Ashkenazic, while page preparation, illustration and contents are much closer to works of the Latins. As magnificent examples in evidence, we have two compendia or ‘miscellanies’ – though these take us again to northern Italy and the region around Venice where –  as we have seen –  Greeks were resident by the end of the fifteenth century, associated with newly established printing houses and chiefly with the Aldine. Before considering the miscellanies in the next post, here’s another example of contemporary Greek script, written by a native while in Italy. It was written after 1453, possibly in Rome, and again its text was printed in Venice before the end of the century.[2] The historical context is set out in an article online.

detail BLHarley MS 5741 f3r Greek copied in Italy by Alexandrou end 15thC

(detail) BL Harley MS 5741 f.3r. Greek text copied in Italy by Greek scholar, Constantine Lascaris.



1.  I find the Catalonian Sephardic cursive script in the Nahmenides text so reminiscent of ‘Voynich’ script that it has occasionally caused me to wonder whether, somewhere along the way, a description written for the Voynich MS mightn’t have been  transferred to another among those which Robert Garrett acquired from Wilfrid. In an article by Erwin Panofsky which I’ve mentioned here before, Panofsky’s description of Garrett’s ‘Hebrew’ manuscript begins:

The rich collection of manuscripts assembled by Mr. Robert Garrett in Baltimore includes a tiny book in Hebrew which is described in the Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts as a Guide of the People of Israel by Ramban (Nahmanides), in Hebrew, with a dedication and preface in Italian, written in Avignon in 1338 for Cardinal Gotio Battaglia, who presented it to Galeotto Malatesta.  A fairly brief examination of the manuscript suffices to show that most of these statements are not tenable. ..[with regard to that manuscript – D]

2. Any association between Voynich-related script or context, and fifteenth-century printeries, is of interest by reason of the Voynich quires’ disturbed state and evidence of what is apparently earlier binding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s