Ringer: Trinity College herbal and bestiary /2

Answering Questions.

As I’ve said before, the single most important key to reading and provenancing problematic imagery of the pre-modern era is the language and social culture the maker assumed common to himself and his intended readers.

In the Trinity manuscript that language, both visual and written, is Latin and the culture plainly Christian. While the imagery is not well drawn, no one is left so puzzled by it that they debate the status intended for one figure over another, nor whether the intention was to communicate literal, metaphorical or allegorical meaning for those figures, plants and animal pictures – as almost every drawing in the Voynich manuscript does. The Trinity College ms. speaks the Latin visual language plainly enough, even if we are unacquainted with this or that ‘word’ in it.

How does one define a visual language?  It comes down to the fact that every society, community and era holds certain beliefs as self-evident truths about the world and the hierarchy of all it contains. This attitude is usually so deeply embedded that it operates at an unconscious level, even while providing the frame or ‘grammar’ of its imagery, and within which a given item is particularly located by reference to two axes: (a)   rank in that ‘social’ hierarchy and (b) grade on a scale from ‘approved/good to ‘rejected/bad’.

In Latin art, the fundamental ‘grammar’  is a strong expression of belief that the world and all its natural appointments were handed to mankind by Gd, with permission to  subdue, exploit and transform anything in it, the better to serve man himself. Subjugation is thus one of the strongest, most frequent and constant themes of Latin art, operating both on perception of social hierarchies and on the moral/religious scale. Medieval Latin art assumes that any form of opposition – practical, ideological, cultural, or philosophical – is the definition of evil, and its destruction not only an appropriate response but an inherently virtuous act.

Early in the thirteenth century, when St Francis of Assisi granted fraternal status to animals, it was considered by many a proof of madness and heresy; he was very nearly condemned to death as a result, but his personal character and obvious non-violence so recommended itself to the Pope of the time that Francis was, in effect, excused as a ‘holy madman’. Nor did his religious views fundamentally alter the character of the Latin worldview or its art.

Presence of the Latin frame and positioning axes is why that image of St.Geoge and all its details are immediately legible; the Latin medieval tradition and visual language is ours by inheritance.  The absence of that frame and axes from the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is why all but a few details defied – and continue to defy – efforts to interpret them by those expecting (or firmly asserting) that it is a product of Latin culture.  There is no such difficulty when it comes to reading imagery in the Trinity manuscript; not because it is better drawn for it is not, but because does ‘speak’ the visual language of medieval Europe.  In seeking similarities for details in the Voynich manuscript, researchers constantly fail to account for context.  Here, for example is the context for that root likened to the one on f.3v.

In the Voynich manuscript are no such markers: no haloes, no saints, no important men seated, and no peasants.

It displays no hands raised in the authority of Christian blessing, Latin or Byzantine, pope or anti-pope.

It depicts no mounted men in armour; no roped bands of subjected armies; no executions; no gracious monarchs or long-gowned ladies exhibiting the admired qualities of grace, virtuous sensibility and incapacity for aggression. I do not know of any Latin medieval manuscript, bar a few technical mathematical texts from which these markers are absent. All of them are absent from the imagery in Beinecke MS 4o8.

(detail) Brit. Lib. Harley MS 4389 fol. 59v. Genoa, 1275-1325.

It contains no images expressing that deep-seated belief that subjection of the world, its lands, animals and other persons is the normal, right and proper activity for man.

The Trinity manuscript is replete with markers of this sort, and shows an especially strong emphasis on social-moral location: of authoritative noble and obedient peasant, of ‘good’ physician and subservient pharmacist versus ‘bad’ medicine of the unofficial Jew or Saracen. Of clerics in authority over good women.

Sarkel castle in Sicily, the oldest extant example of  ‘swallowtail’ battlements, and possibly the reason they were made, within Latin Europe, the symbol of Imperial over Papal claims to ultimate authority.

(detail) fol 99v

(detail) fol 54v

(detail) fol.95v

(detail) fol. 101v

There is nothing in the Voynich manuscript expressing such ideas of social hierarchy save the few late details I’ve mentioned in posts here. (the ‘Asian emperor’ etc.). The imagery shows no apparent knowledge of the basic frame, nor of the scales characteristic of Latins’ worldview and which enable us to read other medieval pictorial narratives easily. Those indicators are also plainly present in every Latin herbal with which I am acquainted and certainly here, in the Trinity College manuscript.

It is not simply that such matters are not emphasised by the imagery in the Voynich manuscript but that the very frame, and both locational scales are absolutely absent from all but its latest stratum.  And this is why, quite unconsciously, generations of researchers have paid  such an inordinate amount of attention to just a very  few details, all the rest perceived as a wasteland or ‘mirror maze’ from which those few alone seem to offer any relief.

One example are the handful of centres (only) in the calendar roundels. Another and  prime example is the so-called ‘castle’ from the map’s smaller inset ‘minimap’.

Though other structures on the same folio, and even within the same vignette  could be imagined ‘castles’, it is this which has seen repeatedly an enormous, disproportionate amount of time and energy, ink and reading devoted to it, and to seeking and claiming some ‘match’ for it.  And not so much a ‘match’ in Latin manuscript imagery as in some castle still extant in Europe! Literalism is simply presumed by most, without reflection, to have been the intention of the original draughtsman, though the context of the primary document and even of other fourteenth and fifteenth-century Latin works should have urged caution on that point.

What leads to such incaution is, again,  reflexive reference to those set axes of the Latins’ social- and moral-religious scales, by which one  ‘makes sense’ of Latin medieval art. Defining the structure as a castle – which it need not necessarily be – means that one is able define it by the grades of social ranking, while presence of  ‘swallowtail’ permits the modern reader to place it again, on the ‘approval/good to rejection/bad’ scale.   Most present day researchers are inclined to approve the Gibelline-imperial position (ultimate authority invested in ruler by inheritance) over the Guelf position (ultimate authority in an elected religious authority), so  this small image feels immediately not only familiar and reader-friendly, but attractive to a modern reader as apparently having a  high position on the social- and on the ‘good-to-bad’ axes.

Such subjective feelings of approval, familiarity and accessibility together tend to blind a viewer to knowledge of its being a subjective reaction, and equally impatient of any internal or external objection to that reading.  In point of fact, the drawing shows both forms of battlement, not just the swallowtail type, and although it has been said, and demonstrated, that ‘swallowtails’ were used outside mainland Europe, from Syria through the Aegean and to the Black Sea; that they did not carry the same exclusively ‘Ghibelline’ connotations in regions beyond mainland Europe, and that the map itself shows this supposed ‘castle’ on the eastern side of the almost encircled sea…  such information seems of little weight against a deep feeling that the other reading ‘makes sense’ – and so instinct and relief at finding some familiar marker overrode reflection – not just the once but again and again as one and then another newcomer latched onto it.

Whether the draughtsman himself placed any greater moral weight on the square than on the swallowtail sort of battlement we don’t know, though at least we  may take their inclusion as signal of Latin presence at that site before or during his time.

Save for the Asian face on f.67v-1 and (possibly) the orator in a diagram on the map’s reverse, no portrait-style image of any person is seen in the Voynich manuscript. And for at least a century, from 1912-2012, it would appear that no-one had noticed that the orator’s dress is Mongol costume. The ‘orator’ is a familiar figure in Latin art, and one whose social ranking is usually middling-to good, and whose stance – indicative of fervour – places him near to one or other extreme in the approval/disapproval scale.  He seems familiar; no-one noticed that his clothing was not.

The Voynich manuscript includes no horned devils nor demons as we find in the Lombardy herbal; it shows no armies surrounding castle or city; no elegant literati in conversation; no effort at Renaissance perspective…

No wonder that so many gravitated to the tiny picture of that fortified structure, a detail just 9 sq. mm  in size, nor that some have treated it as a kind  of lodestone by which all else may be defined, with one or two even supposing one might provenance the entire manuscript from that one item. The way it has been approached and interpreted may serve as paradigm for the errors of approach established in the first part of the twentieth century, and also explains the psychology which prevented due attention being given a number of accurate observations made by experts.  Information has been regularly ignored if  it  fails to support some variation of the Wilfrid-Friedman theory, the theory which moulded the manuscript’s study from  1912.

Though it was obvious from the first that the pictures in Beinecke MS 408 were no easier to read than its written text, the assumption was made and insisted upon that it was a Latin European cultural product.  Tiltman tried to explain that it was unlikely any Latin herbal would be found similar to the Vms, but perhaps the most telling comment of all was made as early as 1928, by Robert Steele.  Steele was a specialist in medieval texts and editor of Roger Bacon’s works.  Because his usual form of expression was so mild, few then or later pondered the implications of such an assessment by such an expert.  He said:

“The usual methods of dating a MS. fail us: the writing cannot be placed, the vellum is coarse for the thirteenth century, but not impossible, the ink is good. Only the drawings remain, and owing to their complete absence of style the difficulty of dating is but increased; it is strange that the draughtsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influences”.

Abstract to Robert Steele, ‘Science in Medieval Cipher’, Nature 122, 563-565 (13 October 1928).


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