False and true histories – Alexandra Marraccini and MS Digby 64

Beinecke MS 408, fol. 3v

Alexandra Marraccini is an intelligent and interested newcomer, one who deserves the thanks of those dedicated to promoting an image of the Voynich manuscript as a wholly Latin Christian cultural product.

She is the latest among those trained in medieval Latin history, art and manuscripts to have done their best to  provide the manuscript with a respectable lineage in those terms: that is, to find  support for the now-longstanding habit of supposing it’s all a normal Latin Christian book, really.   Not that the manuscript offers much help for such efforts: it actually opposes them at every turn, though here and there you get a couple of  late additions and ‘ring-ins’. For the botanical folios, for example, folio 9v is one oddity and folio 47 (especially 47v) presents in so leaden a fashion that it no one would blink to find it bound into a Latin herbal.

(detail) folio 9v








Marraccini’s recent paper (in draft) includes little effort to explain the manuscript’s content- overall or on any given folio.  .  What she does is attempt to provide some more solid footing for the usual, habitual, Eurocentric assumptions that are now a century ingrained. But that’s what pretty much everyone does, and has done since .. say, 1912… because there’s a certain issue affecting perceptions of Europe’s role and relative importance, and these impact on the study of a great many artefacts, including Beinecke MS 408. But I’ll come back to that in the next post.

Like so many before her, in the usual way, Marraccini did not begin by scrutinising the foundation on which earlier ideas were built, but by accepting them as ‘given’.  Using her own wide knowledge of Latin manuscripts, she then set about finding ways to excuse the evident disparity between the Voynich manuscript-as-is and what it ‘ought to be’.

She appears to have relied fairly heavily on the Zandbergen-Clemens platform – to the extent that she remained unaware that any professional scholars had been involved with this study since 2000!

Nor is that to be wondered at: a professional scholar is taught to ensure they do not only present sources supportive of their own views but give a fair summary and survey of the current state of the study.   It is not a principle with which voynich.nu appears to be acquainted, and only Nick Pelling has ever managed to get a blog to work as both a medium to communicate one’s own work AND a place in which to keep abreast of new work and thinking.  Even Pelling gave up trying to maintain his early and brilliant role as researcher, ‘hub’ and reviewer, but then he had a theory already and never represented himself as ‘authoritative’.

MS Digby 64

It is a measure of the usual desperation which comes over specialists in Latin European works that they fairly soon begin scouring the periphery of Europe for ‘like’ imagery: Spain, the Greek islands, or England.

Marraccini says, for example, that the  ‘iconography of MS Digby 46 is ‘strikingly similar’ to that in the Voynich manuscript –  but she omits to distinguish between style of drawing (flattened faces etc.) and those telling internal evidences of European intellectual constructs or of their absence.

Iconographic analysis is normally expected to account for such factors, because intellectual constructs are what inform any person’s idea about what is considered worth drawing and which determine the way image-making itself is defined in a given time and place. In other words it is at the heart of provenancing, even within Latin European works.

The Digby manuscript is similar enough in style of drawing to shed light on that early and consistent attribution of the work to England by independent specialists in Latin manuscripts.

But when both form and content, positive and the negative indicators are all considered and balanced, we find insufficient evidence to support assertions that Beinecke MS 408 is  – as MS Digby 46 certainly is –  a work whose images reflect the intellectual attitudes of Christian European art.  Here are some obvious differences:

MS Digby 46 defines importance as the  result of activities engaged by ‘important’ male figures who, if human, sit in attitudes conveying their higher social status through the token form: ‘great man enthroned’.

The example shown (right) uses the sub-set of that type, one defining the authoritative teacher and his text. So here Pythagoras is shown as he were another Gregory or Christian evangelist. It is a visual trope for the master’s text that is as old as western monastic art, and does not only occur in Latin works but also for example in Jewish ones.  The image would ‘make sense’ to a medieval Latin eye. The correct message would be read from it instantly. But nothing similar is, or could be, in the Voynich manuscript. It comes from a place and time where such western tropes were unknown.

detail MS Digby 46 f.78v. Cf. Sawley map.

In western Latin art, when the figure is not a human one, it usually connects to the religious priorities and orthodoxy of Latin Christianity.  To signal the figure’s nature and position, it will be given to carry some among its particular –  and formally assigned- emblematic objects.  Whether the Digby figure (left) was originally meant for a Christian angel one may be inclined to doubt, but in its current form it surely is.  I should be less inclined to consider it Raphael rather than Michael if I did not feel that its roots might prove Jewish.

detail MS Digby 46 f.78v

Again, in drawing animals, the maker(s) of Digby 46 strove towards ‘realism’ and portraiture, as the Voynich imagery does not only not do but which it shows no knowledge of being ‘supposed to’ do. I agree that an argument could be made for the little horned skink and for the animals in the calendar section.  But consider folio 34v(below) which employs forms and practice entirely alien to the traditions of Latin Christian art.

Point is: you won’t find Latin angels with animals from the barnyard, or noble men pontificating from high chairs in the Voynich manuscript. On the other hand, you will scarcely find an older Latin manuscript without them. Even the well known ‘Manfredus Herbal’ carries such a traditional introduction. And where you may see no teachers, you’re fairly sure of finding the odd bishop, apostle, king or noble. ‘the great man on his chair’ is another staple and hallmark of the Abrahamic traditions.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 6823 f.2r

Were things otherwise, specialists in Latin medieval manuscripts could just open the Voynich manuscript and ‘read’ its imagery to us. But they flounder too, hunting for something that reminds them of some detail in some Latin work and also working from a general assumption that the content ‘must’ belong somewhere within the Latin stemmae… it just doesn’t.

The Voynich manuscript’s imagery isn’t informed by the same conventions; it hasn’t the same mindset; save for a very few late additions it doesn’t speak to its readers in any visual language and tone compatible with the Latins’ visual language.  Most of the manuscripts in which ‘something similar’ turns up are in fact later than the Voynich manuscript.  MS Digby 64 is thus one of the least inappropriate ‘matches’ for the Voynich manuscript’s imagery I’ve ever seen offered. But even MS Digby 64 isn’t of closely similar nature, or similar worldview, or informed by similar expectations of how and what art should communicate.

By actually asking those basic questions so habitually begged  we might reach a truer understanding of just who the people were for whom the content now in the Voynich manuscript  was actually intended.  They certainly weren’t us; and they weren’t medieval Latins, though that is the group among whom it ended up.

As I said, this problem of European presumptions isn’t endemic to study of this one manuscript.  It is part of a broader historiographical and perceptual issue. So that’s the level at which I’ll try again to address it in the next post.

And I’ll use the words of a scholar whose probably never heard of Beinecke MS 408.  That might help take any edge from the conversation.

Alexandra Marraccini, ‘Asphalt and Bitumen, Sodom and Gomorrah: Placing Yale’s Voynich Manuscript on the Herbal Timeline’ – talk presented at the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference, April 1st., 2017


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