Visual language, visual vocabulary and visual ‘characters’.
Even the more arcane forms of pre-modern European imagery, such as that used in alchemical texts, render individual items in forms immediately legible to Europeans and indeed to most inheritors of Mediterranean culture. Though the maker’s meaning might be obscure to the viewer, most readers here could be confident of adding a descriptive label to each item in the following picture, and of doing so accurately. That this is possible is because though the pictorial elements speak in code, they take the form, as it were, of European ‘characters’. The sun is a sun in European style, the stars and the human form (two-headed or not) are easily described. The sphere will be read as referring to a planet, though some will probably mistake the intention of its wings; the dragon is immediately seen as a dragon … and so forth.By contrast, the Voynich manuscript’s imagery uses a visual vocabulary and grammar which barely intersect with the Latins’, and any reader knowing no other conventions will be puzzled not only by what these pictures mean, but what the reader is supposed to be seeing.
There is no immediate sense of certainty about any element in it, so that the ‘labels’ initially attached to sections or to details were no more than generalities of the vaguest type: ‘tube-like things’, or were formed by analogy and imagination: ‘biological forms’ ‘bathing women’ and so on. (One of the tragi-comic elements in Voynich studies is that such initial admissions of ignorance would come, over the decades, and merely by their repetition, to be mistaken for expressions of certainty).
In the composite below, the image on the lower right has been interpreted as being anything from the Andromeda nebula to the sort of thing one sees in pondwater under a microscope. (The present writer’s opinion is that that diagram represents the rhumbs).
I’ll turn again to the botanical folios in the next post, but since they show no sign of attempted ‘translation’, I’ll first consider folios from another section, which do. These folios include anthropoform figures (called ‘nymphs’ or ‘ladies’ by Voynich writers) and, in the present writer’s opinion, this imagery entered medieval Latin Europe from the northern, overland routes from the east rather than through Mesopotamia or direct from Egypt as I hold the botanical and ‘leaves and roots’ sections did. (The body of evidence which led to those conclusions has been presented in earlier posts, accumulating over the past eight years).
In these folios which show affect from efforts at ‘translation’, the changes made did not create any exact counterpart for the original, so does not constitute so much a genuine ‘translation’ of the original imagery a loose ‘rendering‘ or re-definition, enabling it to make a little more ‘sense’ to a Latin European viewer.
In the calendar section, the ‘ladies’ originally had only one breast, and it is telling of the degree to which research has been focussed on arguing a theory rather than studying the object that it took a century and more for this to be noticed. It was only last year (here) that Nick Pelling made that observation and commented on it. Those accustomed to the knee-jerk hostility which often greets any reference to potentially non-Latin elements in the manuscript will not be surprised to learn that this observation was met only by comments which attempted to rationalise it into insignificance. The “all Latin European creation” idea has been floated for so long that there are some who find any contrary evidence or discussion intolerable, unless restricted to an acceptable ‘Arabic’ or ‘Byzantine Greek’ topic.
Pelling also observed, rightly, that there was evidently some lapse in time between the first setting down and those subsequent additions or ‘corrections’. Since Pelling himself accepts the theory of an all-Latin medieval or renaissance authorship, he described these changes as a “later phase or composition[al] pass” ~ where I hold that they mark the point of transition between the sources which held the original imagery, and re-use of it within Latin Europe.
Pelling wrote: Not only were they originally all drawn with a single breast … but many specific details – most notably things such as these three crowns and the tressed head-dresses [better: tressed hair – D] – were apparently added to the original drawing in a later ‘phase’ or composition pass… What was so wrong with the original unadorned … layer that the author felt compelled to dress it up with additional breasts, as well as crowns and tressed hairstyles?
While leaving open the matter of these hairstyles, and what meaning should be attributed to the term “tressed” (why not curling hair, or braided hair?), I would submit that what was “wrong” with the imagery was that it was unreadable in terms of Latin conventions, its forms not those of the ‘Latin characters’ and conveying no clearly intelligible sense within the environment of Latin Europe. When that happens, most readers will either fail to “see” telling details in the imagery, or will look blankly at it and say, in effect, “Huh?!” That didn’t happen, if you recall, when the image came from the alchemical corpus. Mysterious it might have been, and its message obscure, but the forms used for the imagery were intelligible and relatively familiar: dragon, planet, human shape, star-shape, moon, sun… and so forth.
So – once the ‘Voynich’ copyists had set down the original imagery , another hand came and began to ‘correct’ it, to re-interpret the older forms for an environment where a very different set of expectations and a different way of seeing were in operation. Even if the additions had not included a typically European crown among the three crowns, we might guess from the emphasis placed on these crowns that the person serving as ‘correcter and translator’ had a habit of mind very similar to the Latin European – which is characterised by a compulsion to mark persons, objects and even animals or material things, in such a way that each is assigned a specific position/status with the notional hierarchy of all creation.
In some cases, what Pelling calls the ‘compositional pass’ relied more on the brush than the pen. Religious or ideological factors are also operating upon the ‘translator’ who seems to serve as both monitor and censor. Below, the detail from folio 79v shows that the draughtsman/copyist had rendered clearly a cruciform object which has an additional peg or similar extension rising from the right-hand crossbar. That short piece seems to have been removable, for we see a curved socket extending opposite its base, from the underside of that crossbar.
What might that object be? It has no counterpart in any Latin work that I’ve seen, and no comparable object has been produced so far as I know from the Latin, Byzantine or even the Arabic corpus to the time of writing. After it was drawn, the hand which then set about ‘correcting’ and ‘translating’ the object added paint to so strongly emphasise the crossbar that one could predict any casual glance (and much of the glancing done in Voynich studies is fairly casual), would reflexively ‘read’ the object as the familiar, Latin-style, Christian cross. To this day many Voynich writers still insist it depicts nothing but a Latin cross, and I have been accused of ‘hallucinating’ those finer details. That is only to be expected: the ‘all-Latin author’ idea has been the dominant one now for a century and in any case without care, natural facility or training the eye naturally slides over – fails to see – details for which there is no counterpart in the viewer’s experience. Only the Latin cross, by the way, has a single crossbar and a length roughly twice that length.
The process of ‘correcting’ the fishes folio (originally folio 70r, but by the Beinecke library described as folio 70v) proved even more troublesome. I treated its several stages of revision and correction in 2012 (here).
Again in the calendar section, after using the pen to ensure the females appeared two-breasted in the “proper way”, a decision seems to have been made that this was still insufficient; pigment was then applied in a tertiary stage, so finally ‘translating’ each naked star-soul with an ‘Amazon’ torso into a contemporary European “lady.”
Fortunately, the work of ‘correction’ was never finished. We can still compare the forms on f.73v, which show the secondary additions made in pen, with those on f.71, where they are now ‘decently dressed’.
That clothing gave the figures a position in the world-view of contemporary Latins; it denoted status, permitted their being read as ‘normal’ Christian figures, and removed the signs of cultural difference which had informed the original and made them indefinable. Different techniques were employed in other cases to achieve intelligibility for a Latin reader. But while the older imagery now “made sense” for a European Christian audience, the changes would have made the images “mysterious” for the original enunciators. (Ellie Velinska has offered many comparisons for the hats and dresses, examples taken chiefly from German sources).
The Voynich botanical imagery shows no sign of similar effort made; the forms and system of their construction are equally alien to the Latin tradition, and while Touwaide has recently noted some not-dissimilar forms in fifteenth century works, overall I’d say that Tiltman’s comment stands true to this day:
“to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other [Latin Christian] mediaeval manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even the 17th centuries is very limited indeed…”
~ More about the nature of the botanical imagery, and Tiltman, in Part 2 ~
Postscript: since the subject of the female figures remains uncertain, I describe them as ‘anthropoform’ – formed in the shape of a human being. This is distinct from ‘anthropomorphic’ which refers to beings that are essentially non-human being represented as if they were. If it should turn out that the star-holding figures these are not (for example) famous characters associated with a star, but are simply personifications for the star, then ‘anthropomorphic’ would apply.
“faithfully”.. The suggestion that some, at least, of the Voynich folios had been traced was raised more than thirteen years ago in a thread to the first mailing list discussing whether the vellum was translucent.