ANALYSING THE IMAGERY (second edition)

I responded in 2008 to a request to consider a couple of images from this manuscript, of which I had not heard before.  I was soon engaged by the presence of some undoubtedly ancient motifs, remarkably unaltered by the centuries until the making of this fifteenth century manuscript.

After making my preliminary survey, and about eighteen months in deeper research and analysis of the imagery, I decided it was time to offer my conclusions to that time to the ‘Voynich world’.

I had hoped it might turn attention  from the then-universal focus on Latin European elites, to whom it was very clear that we do not owe the manuscript’s imagery, its origins or transmission to the fifteenth century.

To my bemusement, those conclusions were treated as no more than random suggestions: as “theory” or an “hypothesis”.  This was certainly a new experience for me and perhaps I should have withdrawn then.

I remained working in this field for the simplest of reasons: I like this manuscript. Explaining it, post by post, has been a long and often tedious process, given that the last specialist to comment on the manuscript did so in 1931.

This is a pity, because outside the strangely closed world of Voynich studies online, there is a very large and professional network  of persons expert in manuscript studies, art evaluation, iconographic analysis, archaeology and so forth.

Some might be  amused by the usual interpretations of imagery in MS Beinecke 408.  Others, I expect would be less so.

While it remains no more than a personal hobby for most of those involved, I should certainly think any ill advised who tried to offer a copy of the ‘Balneis Puteolanis’ at auction, claiming it related to the “school of the Voynich master” – or vice versa.

Equally, to  assert in that environment that any containers in the ‘pharma-‘ section, so called, depict the type of Majolica vessels used in sixteenth or seventeenth century European pharmacies would be considered a mis-representation of the manuscript, and such misrepresentations have consequences in the world “out there”.

Anyone endeavouring to pass the work off “a characteristically European herbal”, might conceivably even see themselves visited before the auction by members of the fraud squad. 🙂

I think that if this image, and standard, is kept in mind when approaching the Voynich imagery, we may see it treated with more care, and – if I may say so – less frivolous attitudes.

The manuscript is an object six hundred years old; it is not a ‘virtual creation’ but a product of customs, ways of thought, and iconographic traditions which by then are (in some cases) a thousand and more years older.

One cannot guess, or intuit the informing matter, or hope to have all the necessary intellectual tools at one’s disposal without moving from the attitudes of the post-industrial world.  “Gut-feeling” and a vague idea that “anyone with two eyes” is sufficiently well-equipped to interpret that imagery… well, they just don’t  cut it.


My conclusions? That the work is a compilation made in the early fifteenth century from sources then gained by the Latin world –  most of it, I should think, as a result of the expulsions.  It is certainly largely Jewish, and southern, as Panofsky said plainly enough in 1931.  Only the astronomical roundels and the “bathy-” section have ever given me reason to suppose those might come from the north rather than across the southern line between Spain and the far east.

Most of it appears to have been obtained fairly recently Spain or southern France, though England is not altogether impossible. By the later middle ages, at least, the communities in question were Jewish, but the nature of the worldmap on folio 86v, and other factors leads me to believe that, during the earlier medieval centuries, some of the content  had been held by the travellers known as Radhanites, later included among the Jews. The manuscript is a compilation, and so its content varies, but the simplest explanation of their combination is a common relevance to the silk and/or spice roads, chiefly the latter.

Those folios from the botanical section which I’ve treated relate chiefly to the maritime route, I should say. I have noted plants whose chief use was in making perfume, incense, dyes and fabrics etc., which formed the larger part of the trade in and through the eastern seas.  There are also plants whose chief uses relate to maintenance of a ship or caravan and its crew. Almost all do appear again in the eastern pharmacopoeia, though some (such as Clematis) were not well regarded in the west, and others (such as banana or breadfruit) remained unknown to western botany for centuries after our manuscript was made.

The nearest model for the astronomical section I’d suggest might be found in the Cordovan calendar and maritime handbooks such as Majid’s Fa’ida. I regret having been unable to access the former, but it is one of the few early Latin works to combine a calendar and botanical section, the other being a manuscript held at St.Gall in which a ‘botanicus’ has been bound with a separate work, a folding book owned by a ‘peripatetic physician from northern Italy’ – the catalogue says no more about it.

The reason that the manuscript’s ‘calendar’ section does not conform to expectations of Latin origin, containing (for example) two bulls and what appear to be two goats, and beginning with the Pisces constellation is probably again to be found in eastern and Jewish custom.

In short, I was a little unsettled to find that my results gained from the primary evidence came to a conclusion which can be found much earlier in three sources: Panofsky’s evaluation in 1931; Georg Barsch’s “hypothetical” explanation for the work given in a letter to Kircher in the seventeenth century, and finally John Tiltman’s view that the botanical images were composite figures – indeed they are, and from a tradition quite distinct from the Dioscoridan, despite clear similarity in stylistics with folios in the Mashad Diosorides, the work of a Yemeni Christian.

I have no particular remedy for the troubles of those attempting to decipher the written text. We simply do not know when the written part of the text was added,  for and by whom. It may be an original composition of the fifteenth century compilation of this older matter, but the account given by Georg Baresch allows one to hope otherwise, and I have sometimes suspected that Panofsky himself could read it, though as he said “no Hebraist”.



additional note Nov.20th., 2014

What I have described as the ‘template’ which informs the manuscript’s botanical figures is outlined i in two posts. In order: ‘System and Science’, and  fol.53v – step by step. The subsequent posts generally give a brief account of my final opinion without detailing the sometimes very lengthy process of exploration and elimination which preceded it.

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