STOP PRESS –

For anyone who is trying to teach themselves about medieval history and image-making simultaneously, I highly recommend a paper now available through academia.edu and originally published as:

Peggy Bloomer, ‘The Medieval Image at the Interception of Signifier, Signification, Historical Context and Commodification in Book of the Hours’, The International Journal of the Image, Volume 4, Issue 2, June 2014, pp.69-79.

Bloomer was, in 2014, an Adjunct Professor at  Quinnipiac University, North Haven, CT, USA

 

Some short quotes:

“This distain for [Europe’s medieval period] which lasted centuries and is part of the DNA of western culture, blinds the contemporary modern sensibility to the fact that like today, the image was the predominant form of narrative. In a manner similar to our times, image was the major vehicle for information sharing then as now, albeit the visual media of the medieval times were very different from now…”

“… as Chaucer’s poem to his scribe Adam attests, scribing was a well-established occupation by the late Middle Ages outside of the monastery and away from the oversight of the Church…”

One of the reasons that I cannot attribute the imagery in MS Beinecke 408 to the western Christian (Latin) tradition is the complete absence of the usual informing themes and structures.  I have tried to avoid jargon in these posts, but cannot sufficiently emphasise the importance of this point.

Bloomer’s paper also refers to it, by way of Kristeva’s classification of narratives in the Latin world, the same applying to prose, poetry and imagery produced from that environment.

As Bloomer writes:

“[Kristeva] outlines four types of narratives and the way they refer to psychological symptoms and the use of signification within these modes of storytelling. … the first type of narrative centers on family and clan …. the second and third types … relate directly to the feudalistic political system and the third type to the strong religious power of the Middle Ages. Speaking about the second form of narrative, Kristeva says:

That subsumes family zones, and especially individuals directly, without the intermediary of the clan. The Greek city-state, Royalty, and the Republic are, each in its own way, hierarchies, structures in dominance, which more of less directly, in more or less mediated fashion, subordinate human entities. Even when the mediation passes through the family (as in feudalism) the family as social function operates within a totality that dominates an represses it: its autonomy as a unit of production is relativized within the State, which has the last, in fact the only – word.

This, in my opinion is exactly to the point, and while I do not think it an observation universally applicable, it precisely defines the character of Latin attitudes and imagery throughout the period of interest.  It constitutes the character of medieval and of Renaissance narrative.

And that is why I have emphasised in my posts the absence from the Voynich imagery of any vision of the world as based around the works of men (and I mean men, not persons) or of the social hierarchy, expressed by depiction of a man surrounded by signs of power (including military accoutrements), wealth (such as ermine robes or silk dresses), and status (thrones, kneeling subjects, halos etc.).

Whether as a first ‘gut instinct’ or as the response of a formally trained observer, there is an absolutely non-Latin – that is, non- western-Christian – character to the Voynich imagery.

Anyone  seriously more interested in MS Beinecke 408 than  a dearly-held theory should begin by reading this paper, Mary Carruthers’ Book of Memory, and some fairly solid stuff about the history of astronomy in places other than fifteenth century Europe.

Crossbowmen are one thing; a sun with a female face and artificial beard is quite another.  Most of what passes for discussions of Voynich imagery is little more than shooting fish in barrels.  If you have any training in, or natural talent for, iconographic analysis it will be more efficient to start from the most problematic elements, not the easy stuff.

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