This is a temporary afterword, as it were.
While the second part is prepared, the research posts will not be public, but incidental ones will to save interrupting the page-by-page section which should be ready by early next year.
In the meantime, I’d like to add a caution to newcomers concerning what I see as currently the two most common pitfalls in this area of research.
First is an assumption very widespread: namely that a medieval book is like a modern book in having an author who uses the medium to express himself. First, the new idea is developed, then transferred to the medium of writing or drawing, and finally ~ if ever ~ sent out into the world.
Books were differently considered before printers were common.
Earlier – to about the late fifteenth century ~ the great majority of books were made by a master on subjects that he himself first studied from inherited texts and then taught with his commentary.
Later in life, if his renown was sufficiently great ~ and then only with proper reluctance and protestations ~ would he be persuaded by peers, students or colleagues to dictate his knowledge to attending clerks and so finally a fair copy might be produced.
Its illustrations, especially in the western world, were almost always faithful to earlier forms and custom. No wild flights yet of the individual imagination as we find in the Baroque.
Otherwise, a book was made and meant to remain somewhere in the range between private and secret.
The private or personally-made book was often a compilation from older texts: the sort of book called a commonplace book or a ‘florilegium’. Most of our extant florilegia [in that sense] are clerical compendia; far fewer are technical handbooks of one kind or another, these meant as a way for a master to pass on his years of experience to his own apprentices and family circle. The Mappae Clavicula is one of those.
The portolans made before the middle of of the fifteenth century are of that type too; but from them the early portolan charts are believed to have developed.
This, again, before printing became the norm and while ‘trade secrets’ were the key to family fortunes among the mercantile and technical classes.
Other works, including the medieval herbals, fall into the range of text-books, like copies of mathematical or other standard texts. Historians still argue about just how they were used, and who mostly used them. It seems possible that they were just as often – if not more – meant as pattern-books for imagery and embroidery as they were ‘herbals’ in the modern sense, and again other examples may have been used in the way that lapidaries and bestiaries were, as a key to moralisatin.
What I have found, in the content of the Voynich manuscript’s imagery, suggests a book of the purely technical kind: formed of extracts gathered from different sources, united chiefly in apparent purpose (eastern trade) and suggestion that they come originally from Hellenistic originals. Additional details then suggesting that at some time around the twelfth century, the earlier material had come to the notice of some group in the Mediterranean as the chartmakers, western mariners or traders whose intersecting interests the final compilation appears to address.
Genoese and Venetians are among the most logical possibilities for the second phase and with them, indeed, the key to the written text may lie.
But what seem ‘likely’ to be so from the point of a present state of knowledge has less bearing on a history than one might expect; histories are told as a narrative but ‘history’ doesn’t come from the word for story, but for ‘investigations’.
And while a history may be neatly begun and halted, history itself has no beginning, middle and end; the protagonists we make eminent are, at the same time (as we know) people who had less impact in their own time than others who have passed unremembered.
The Mongol khan is a prominent figure; but which of his men three the plague-ridden corpses into Caffa, and who was the sea-captain who brought the fleeing Venetians – and the plague – by ship thence to Marseilles? Which of these men more greatly affected the history of northern France?
And so to the second common pitfall in Voynich studies:
2. One cannot ‘logic out’ an historical narrative in the absence of solid evidence.
I know it has been frustrating for some readers that I do not nominate a specific area or people or language as the source of the whole manuscript’s imagery (as distinct from the production of the current written text, which is attributed to scribes trained in European style).
The imagery does not permit a single definitive description of that kind, nor can it tell us except by a decipherment of its text, or by documentary evidence, the sort of information that would make a tidy story. The imagery speaks to its heterogeneous sources, and indicates original source works made during those dates I’ve specified ( 4th-3rdC BC to 3rdC AD), with additional details added considerably later. I suggest a time about the twelfth century for the earliest additions.
Hellenistic works were more widely known than one might expect, and turn up in manuscripts dating to the tenth century as far distant as southeast Asia, where in some cases their relics are retained today. Some but not all came there in Arabic translations.
Within the Voynich manuscript, the botanical section and the ‘pharma’ section suggest the purpose of this part of the compilation (and of the bathy-section at least) was intended to assist in the eastern maritime trade, the botanical and pharma sections especially showing evidence of affect from what called in the broadest sense an ‘asian’ style, although in that broad sense it includes southern India.
By contrast, many among the diagrams, and especially the twelve ‘month’ diagrams show no obvious Asian ‘overlay’ but rather influence from Persian and Armenian style. I should be inclined to place their origins in the North Aegean and Black Sea.
A great deal more could be known if we had more technical data. For example, the month-folios’ pigment contain tin and titanium. But the proportions are crucial in such data, and also whether they come in organic or inorganic form. Titanium, for example, is relatively rare, but accumulates in certain types of plant, most notably in nettles. Similarly, tin is relatively rare, but if present in trace amounts may be simply due to .. for example.. the use of a bronze stylus or inkwell. We cannot know enough at present to use such data to narrow the geographic range further.
The point here is not to criticise the data we have, or the research which is already done, and being done still. It is to show that documentation is there not only to form an opinion oneself, but to allow others to see if the opinion is sufficiently justified by the facts.
Facts, and not logic, are the point in historical research.
And so histories are fine things but all too often made of lacework rather than linen.
What was the name of the person who brought the manuscript to Rudolf’s court? Whence had he come? What was his natural language? Was he commissioned to fetch the book, or was it one he had been in the habit of hanging from his belt? What clarity we might gain from answers; what a tale might be made from conjecturing them. But the facts are not there for a history, and however logically built it could be a story, and no more.
One cannot predict; one cannot suppose or reason out events of which there is no record.
History is about what would appear to have happened in fact, as best we can judge, and to the extent that we can trust documents and artefacts, and our own ability to rightly interpret them.
That’s why scholarly papers are so laden with footnotes, and citations: not to support the author’s account, but to show it is an account informed at every step by data which is, or which is taken by most people, to be true.
Without the usual apparatus, posts are less off-putting, I agree. No friendly casual reader is pleased by an impression that they are being set some homework. And that is not the reason that next year’s analytical posts will have these things from now on. I’m not comfortable without them, is all. Call it habit.