The armour of the word

The ‘starting from scratch’ series will resume, but another interesting point has come up on Stephen Bax’s site.  A correspondent named ‘Peter’ noticed that the nose on a fish which is part of a ‘creation of the world’ image is like the nose on one of the Voynich ‘Pisces’ fish.

It occurs in a 12th-13thC copy of Augustine’s “City of God”, an illustration for the text’s description of the days of creation, including that in Genesis 1:21 which mentions  creation, on the fifth day, of  “great sea creatures” (also translated as great sea beasts, or -monsters).

In his picture, then, the illustrator includes all the largest sea-creatures he knows how to draw, but unlike some other illuminators in Europe, he kept the forms literal and did not make any into sea- ‘monsters’ as such. You can see the picture on Stephen’s site, within a post headed “where was the manuscript produced?” (October 25th., 2014).

Peter’s putting his image there implies a certain tacit argument about provenance – one quite untenable, and the reason for my post.   He isn’t talking stylistics, but Provenance with a capital “p”. In other words his observation is not about understanding the manuscript’s imagery, but about creating a structure which might support his preferred theory, which is evidently the ‘German’ theory whose adherents are perhaps the single most cavalier group in the way they treat the manuscript’s internal evidence, and dismiss its clear indications of non-German, and ultimately non-Latin origin.

For convenience, I show “Peter”s picture again here. It’s public domain and its being here will save you flipping back and forth.


Let’s look at the points of similarity.

  1. The picture has a sun and a moon in it.  The sun is drawn unlike the way any sun in the Voynich manuscript is drawn, but the moon has a cover on its mouth – the Voynich imagery also has a sort of ‘veil’ over part of the moon’s face.
  2. The outer right-hand edge has a pattern which also occurs in the Voynich manuscript – and in a great many other manuscripts and media, from outside Europe as well as within – but they do have that in common.
  3. One of the fish has an upturned nose. So does one of the Voynich ‘Pisces’ fish.

And that’s pretty much it.  Now look at how the ‘creation’ image clearly announces its provenance very different from the Voynich manuscript’s – though style, attitude and content.

  1. Formal geometry has first created the “jig-saw” of spaces in which various parts of the ‘Creation’ will be set.  There is evidence of the compass and ruler used within the small area of an illuminated initial; the whole page has been marked out as a page of text, and traces of the ruling out remain.  When you look at the text-pages of the Voynich manuscript, none of these characteristics occurs, though it is routine in Latin manuscripts, including those produced in Germany.  Between Peter’s text-page, and the Voynich text-pages, we have an absolute and fundamental difference in conception of the “the page”.  This alone argues against the two having been ‘produced” – I think the word should be manufactured or “made” – in the same scriptorium.
  2. The drawing which “Peter” produces is all within an illuminated initial.  This, again, marks a fundamental difference between that twelfth-thirteenth century Latin manuscript (which is absolutely typical of products from Latin scriptoria) and ours.
  3. The stars are drawn in the ‘creation’ picture as European manuscripts often draw them; that is as criss-crossed strokes of the pen.  That is not the way the ‘star-flowers’ are drawn in the Voynich manuscript, not even in end- section.  This is a particuarly telling piece of evidence, for such things are done routinely, according to the custom of a region, and its generations of scribes. The customs of the Voynich manuscript are not those characteristic of German scriptoria.
  4. The way the bodies are drawn.  In “Peter’s” example, the bodies of Adam and Eve are drawn with their bones visible: you see elbows and knees and ankles as it were ‘through’ their skin. Effort has been made to have those figures ‘portrait’-like  – a man and a woman believed to have once lived in the real world.  Now, compare those bodies with the way that anthropoform figures are made in the Voynich manuscript. As you see, even when arms are bent they look ‘rubbery’ and boneless. The figure on the lower left of the detail below has legs crossed, but they look like plasticine – hardly able to bear a real human being’s weight. The faces, too, are drawn to a very different method, but that’s probably enough for you to see the point.  Not only are they not from the same hand as “Peter’s” manuscript, but they are as plainly outside the Latin tradition as his example is plainly a product of it.   The Voynich manuscript is the outsider.
  5. excerpt from f.70 Pisces

5. I think it is plain enough that the first makers of  imagery in the Voynich manuscript, and even those who produced our present copy in the fifteenth century, were not working in the same tradition which informs that German manuscript to which Peter refers as evidence of provenance.

In effect, he is trying to argue that we can determine the Voynich manuscript’s provenance on the basis of one element in one part of one creature in his ‘creation’ picture: a fish’s “nose”.

Pisces detail

fish creation

If the argument were no more than an amateur’s effort at recognising style, then one wouldn’t object so strenuously, even though the argument is erroneous.  But ‘Peter’ is trying to use this detail to argue that the Voynich manuscript was made in Germany – and that’s a whole other thing. That’s seriously off-centre.

If his argument were that he had found the same sort of fish-nose in a German manuscript, as we see on one of the Voynich ‘Pisces’ fish, then we could simply agree – both draughtsman apparently knew what a sturgeon looked like.  Why not? No problem about that. Why shouldn’t they both know examples of the same species or family?


Siberian sturgeon

Sturgeon travelling without passport in search of a better life

Atlantic sturgeon

So granted that both drew one of the types of sturgeon, what else have the images in common – as *imagery*.  What evidence do they show of coming from a similar artistic or cultural environment.   Apart from the nose, what have the two pictures in common? .. Ah.. not much.

fishes compared

Both have frilly tails.  All the fish have frilly tails in the ‘Creation’ story illumination, and so again in a great many Latin and non-Latin manuscripts. Proves nothing much.

What else? Fins and gills drawn the same way? No.. represented differently. The surface of the skin is represented differently..

Not much in common at all, is there?

The whole ‘Creation’ image has so little in common with the Voynich manuscript’s approach to the construction of images, that if it hadn’t been for the random event  that for very different reasons each drew a sturgeon, no-one dream of suggesting origin in the same region or scriptorium. But that’s what Peter is trying to attempt, and it astonishes me – not only that “Peter” would attempt such a spurious argument for preferred provenancing, but that otherwise highly rational people seem to lose the ability to think analytically when the subject is imagery.

There is a sensible reason why each manuscript, should include the image of a sturgeon, but only Peter’s image needs explanation.

Simply, for someone in Germany, a sturgeon was the greatest “monster of the deep” a scribe was likely to see.  The Volga and Black Sea sturgeon are still the largest freshwater fish in the world. A record from 1827 notes the capture in the Volga estuary of a Beluga female which weighed  1,571 kg (3,463 lb) and was 7.2 m (24 ft) in length.  A natural for Genesis’ description of the ‘great creatures’ of the seas, especially before over-fishing reduced sizes and numbers.  That is why, in some cases, the sturgeon’s upturned nose is given the writhing ‘sea-beast’ body – its a convention in art to denote a giant water-creature.

Another member of the sturgeon family was, until the 1970s, a prolific fish known as the Adriatic sturgeon; it was  associated chiefly with the Iberian peninsula into whose rivers it used to come to breed. Now believed extinct in the wild, it would have been particularly associated with Iberia.

Between the 1930s and the 1970s,  over-exploitation of this Iberian species for its caviar, added to the construction of the Alcalá dam on the Guadalquivir river, caused the sturgeon Acipenser naccarii to disappear. Only a few wild specimens of A. naccarii were left, swimming up the Po river in Italy. On the heritage list, A. Naccarii is listed as critically endangered, possibly extinct. (Did Spain really need that dam?)

So not only is their representation different in the two manuscripts, but the type of sturgeon may be quite different.

If “Peter” had been content to point out that both manuscripts depict a type of fish having an upturned nose, it would have been a fair comment.

Trying to parlay a fairly ordinary point into an argument for his favourite theory of provenance is rather less innocuous.

A manuscript’s provenance is not determined by such trivia, but by reference to its physical structure, form, materials and page.  On that matter, the ‘german’ thesis is yet to find a point in its favour.   Arguments about fish-noses offer no substitute.



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