MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – because more than anything else, you’ll need to read it from to time, to keep things in proportion – is the article in the UNCYLCOPAEDIA.
Very well informed indeed, and just as sharply satirical. (Believe everything and don’t believe a word). Here’s a sample:
“… It is thought highly unlikely that the Voynich Manuscript will be translated fully with the next generation or two, which will guarantee its magic and mystery and several academic incomes for the foreseeable future”.
(see also READING page)
For newcomers, hoping to work on researching the manuscript, I really recommend the following to articles, which will help you avoid proposing the sort of impossible theories which infest this area of study.
First: Marke Fincher’s guide, published by Nick Pelling. I’d go further and say that all newcomers should learn it by heart! So much about the manuscript is no more than speculation that has become hardened into ‘what-everyone-thinks’ that recalling his cautions will keep you on track.’
Second: Lev Grossman’s article, published in LinguaFranca, April 1999. This is the way it was before the demise of the first mailing list, and the subsequent, seemingly unstoppable rise of the ‘German theory’, despite the near-total absence of support offered it by the manuscript, whose vellum isn’t German; binding isn’t German; whose written text has consistently produced a result of “not German” by every known linguistic and statistical test, and in which the names of the months are written in a dialect which is southern, and certainly not German. Judeo-Catalan, Occitan or some similar southern dialect seems probable. Given that the imagery in the manuscript shows no sign of being German, either, one can only ascribe this theory’s success to the personal charm, ubiquitous presence, and natural talent for diplomacy exhibited by Zandbergen himself.
Lynn White, Jnr., ‘Medieval Engineering and the Sociology of Knowledge, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Feb., 1975), pp. 1-21.
Should be the least painful way to gain a basic understanding of the times involved: not just a reasonable historical perspective and intelligent chronology, but a clear appreciation that even in a compendium such as the Voynich manuscript, you are highly unlikely to find together subjects such as astrology and computus, higher astronomy and ‘scientific’ botanical drawings. Do read it.
Wiki article – has been updated. A fair introduction, but fact and assertion are sometimes indistinguishable. The assertion that the manuscript’s ‘text and imagery are characteristically European’ is … well … astonishing. It is not only counter-intuitive for newbies, but is not a statement found in the literature until recently, and appears to be a reverse definition gained by considering the few instances of similar motifs in European works. ‘Characteristically European’ imagery is dated and provenanced within a couple of days – it doesn’t require a century’s deliberation and C-14 dating to establish its range!
Documentary evidence: Philip Neal’s page is essential. A number of online sites contain digitised manuscripts. Among those I’d mention are the British library sites, and the Shøyen Collection.
Botanical: as an aid to research and apart from any other sites mentioned in specific posts, Gernot Katzer‘s site is essential, I should say. Worth a bookmark.
The short interview with Mazar and Wiart, whose opinion was that many plants are Asian and Indian, is linked at cipher mysteries. Go to the last paragraph there.
In addition, Mrs. Grieve’s ‘Modern Herbal’ is a must. Not the heavily cut version online: get the original book if you possibly can.
If you are interested in the foundations from which medieval Europe and early Baghdad gained knowledge of plants, in addition to classical texts (such a as those of Theophrastus of Eresus and Dioscorides) I’d recommend among the texts produced in Arabic:
BUDGE, E. A. WALLIS, Syrian anatomy, pathology and therapeutics; or, “The Book of Medicines”,(London: Oxford University Press, 1913) 2v.
Medieval centuries: For a start, to introduce you to the range and style of medieval learning in the west, I’d still recommend Mary Carruthers’ books.
And in the same connection, Engel, William E., ‘What’s New in Mnemology’, Connotations 11.2-3 (2001/2002): 241-61.
A blogger’s list of related works given ‘in no particular order’ here.
Calculation of dates for the medieval centuries is a fraught issue. This Calendar converter (with downloadable files) might help, but needs Java enabled.
The art of memory, as practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had a style rather different character from that practiced in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries. For the period after the manuscript was made, but during Rudolf’s time or Kircher’s, Frances’ Yates works are relevant. Burton wrote,
I would for these causes wish him that is melancholy .. voluntarily to impose some task upon himself, to divert his melancholy thoughts: to study the art of memory, Cosmus Rosselius, Pet. Ravennas, Scenkelius’ Detectus, or practise Brachygraphy [shorthand] &c. that will ask a great deal of attention.
Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, 2.2.4
Ciphers and codes:
Sorry – not my thing! (I’d recommend Ciphermysteries.
*The 15thC and the making of the manuscript.
Codicology, marginalia and script is discussed in many posts in Nick Pelling’s Ciphermysteries blog.
A paper written by Elmar Vogt, including Elias Schwerdtfeger’s discussion of the month-roundels is available as a pdf download (8 MG ~English)
A brief summary of basic results from Mc Crone’s analysis of the inks and pigments (pdf).
*The seventeenth century and later
Here’s the link to Philip Neal’s translation of various seventeenth-century letters, including ones addressed to or from Athanasius Kircher – and some of which are taken (entirely reasonably) as referring to the Voynich manuscript.
However, the link above is to a page written before the C-14 dating of the manuscript’s parchment, so it is no fault of Philip Neal’s that it isn’t taken into account.
voynich.nu contains much useful background. Its pages often presume that the manuscript is entirely a product of Europe, and Rene Zandbergen has spent a great deal of time creating an argument to support the hearsay reported by Marci of Mnishovky: namely an assertion that Rudolf II had once owned the manuscrript. Voynich.nu was, last I looked, still entirely Euro-centric, though perhaps my continuous stream of contra-indications over the past five years has had some recent effect.
voynich.nu also presumes (or presumed) that the botanical section should be supposed a medicinal ‘herbal’ that was part of European tradition.
The same assumptions and presumptions are very general, still among Voynich people, as I write. At Ellie Velinksa is creating a list of European plants as identifications for imagery in the botanical section, these also referring to European plants – so far. (Ellie has her own blog now, having shifted from the “Big Government” think-tank site).
Many people differ from me, too, in maintaining an early assumption that the Voynich manuscript represents the individual authorship of a fifteenth-century European.
Rich Santacoloma’s ideas are different again, but I have not seen evidence in support, so refrain from comment.
Kircher and circumstantial evidence
There is an implication in a letter written to Kircher in 1637 by Georg Baresch, that Baresch (who had the manuscript) believed its content ‘oriental’ or Egyptian, but certainly written in an ancient language and/or script.
Baresh wrote (I quote Neil’s translation):
[In your] Prodromus Copticus [Prodromus coptus sive aegyptiacus, 1636], among other things, you requested all those who might possess anything which might enrich the work for help with materials to increase the resources for bringing your work to fruition.
‘The work’ here may be Kircher’s present efforts to relate Coptic (which he learned from books brought to him) to Egyptian hieroglyphics, which he studied in Avignon(!).
Or it may be that magnum opus, the ‘great work’ which Kircher already envisaged, by which intended to trace the lineage of every culture in the world to its ‘Egyptian origins’. Including the Chinese.
Baresch also refers to the common identification of Oedipus with the solver of mysteries.
Kircher’s Lingua aegyptiaca restituta  would use the very same image of the sphinx and Oedipus in its frontispiece, along with the languages and areas of ‘arcane’ knowledge with which Kircher was credited:
Whether the manuscript concerns any of these we cannot tell, for it seems Kircher refused to receive more than the few transcribed pages sent him in that letter, and had no opportunity to consider the manuscript as a whole until it was sent to him almost thirty years later, in 1665, with a curiously apologetic covering letter by Marcus Marci. Curious for a man bestowing a gift upon another.
The same letter conveys the impression that Kircher had meanwhile changed his mind about his earlier refusal, perhaps later even pressing Baresch for it. Whatever the case, Kircher had it, finally, over Baresch’s dead body.
The intervening years had seen Kircher publish works on magnetism, astronomy and various other things (see list of publications at end of the wiki biography), but his interest grew in demonstrating that every culture in the world could be linked by a kind of family tree whose roots lay in ancient Egypt. In fact, we tend to form similar ‘trees’ even today, although we set the roots not in earlier civilizations so much as in earlier geological ages.
The end-result of Kircher’s Chinese studies was a massive work which is currently called ‘China Illustrata’, but which when published in Amsterdam in 1667 bore one much longer: China monumentis, qua sacris qua profanis, nec non variis naturae and artis spectaculis, aliarumque rerum memorabilium argumentis illustrata.
Kircher’s effort to relate all cultures to an original ‘ur-civilization’ was typical of his time and was considered the very latest in European science. From a modern perspective, though, it can be seen as little more than a revised version of the Christian chronographies and topographies of earlier centuries.
As far as our manuscript goes – by 1665, Kircher had certainly become aware that Europe’s ‘China’ and ‘Cathay’ were the same territory, perhaps thanks to Golius’ proofs (1654+), but quite as probably by more direct links to the remarkable Martino Martini, whose name is often passed over in standard accounts of Golius’ work.
Whatever the case, it would seem it was from about that time Kircher began asking in earnest for the manuscript.
In his original letter, Barschius (Baresch) had said:
it is easily conceivable that some man of quality went to oriental parts in quest of true medicine … He would have acquired the treasures of Egyptian medicine partly from the written literature and also from associating with experts in the art, brought them back with him and buried them in this book in the same script.
But Kircher believed that the ‘orient’ had received everything, ultimately, from Egypt and Baresch may well have held the same belief.
Twenty-five years later, Marci’s covering letter suggests that the script and/or text is still unknown:
So now please accept what was long owed to you (sic!) …and break through its bars with your habitual ease.
so finally, at this point, we may rule out a plain text in any of those which Kircher claimed to know in 1643.
I have seen it said that Golius also “brought back from the orient” a sixteenth century manuscript copy of three books from a ninth-century translation into Arabic, of Heron of Alexandria’s Mechanica. ( Heron/Hero of Alexandria 10–70 AD).
I’m still trying to clarify the question of how he obtained the book, but it came from the Orient proper* he did not fetch it himself, having travelled only to Morocco with the Dutch embassy in 1622, and then later, in 1626, as a tour through Syria and Arabia.
It is the dates for those versions of Hero’s work (1stC AD; 9thC AD and 16thC copying) which is interesting ~ as I’ve just realised.
Since Golier’s “China=Cathay” proof was gained by conversations with a visiting Jesuit from China, perhaps I will find that his copy of the Mechanica came by the same route, in which case Golier may indeed have ‘got it from the further Orient’, if not at first hand.
What his acquisition of the Mechanica tells us, at least, is that not only medical and astronomical texts had been translated for the Arabs by pre-Islamic peoples who had maintained their classical heritage to that time – wherever they were, and whatever their own language or script.
Preservation of the Mechanica – at last for the three of its books which Golier obtained – is probably due as much to the dockside or the architect as to a library, since these three concern the construction of weight-moving machines. One cannot but wonder about Ceuta and Zayton. The difficulty is what exactly Golier meant by the ‘orient’.
I am indebted to Roger Pierce’s blog for some of this information.
* an additional if a minor difficulty is that M.L. Anatolia comes from the Greek: anatole, from anatellein ‘to rise’ (= ana “up” + tellein “to accomplish, or perform”), used to mean sunrise and in that sense employed as an equivalent to oriens.
Current Research in Voynich studies:
It is almost impossible to keep track of the many people who have come and gone from the field of Voynich research. A considerable number are recognised and their views discussed (not inevitably in a complimentary tone) on Nick Pelling’s blog. Otherwise, most lists of research-names end with a group of scholars active a decade ago, and whose interest appears to have waned with the failure of the original Voynich mailing list (early 2000’s).
I recommend Knox’s web-page, and not only for the work he does but for his fair-minded and balanced attitude. (His including my name on his list of researchers is evidence of the same, though not the reason for my recommendation).
Female researchers are rarely included in any list. The exception is Edith Sherwood (with whose views I happen to disagree). Her efforts are mentioned on various forums, and various paid advertisements for her web-page may be seen online.
About some prominent names in the field, it is fruitless to seek information about their present views; in some cases their work was done as much as seventy years and more ago and the authors are dead; in other cases those active in the early 2000’s may have modified their views over the past decade or so, but have not published any more. In other cases again, we have no original research or conclusions offered online, in journals or in forums.
The earlier assumption, which continues to affect many studies, was that the manuscript was the original product of a single ‘author’s thought, and he contemporary with the manuscript’s materials, and the invention of its textual and pictorial content. After the C-14 dating, most envisaged that event for the fifteenth century. Others maintaining the same basic assumptions, continued to insist on a later period.
That preliminary assumption has not led to any major breakthrough in the ongoing effort to understand the written text, botanical figures, or the astronomical diagrams.
I believe that assumption erroneous, but I don’t have to reconcile the imagery with the written text.
Recently, Claudio Foti and a number of followers have taken up an idea that the manuscript may have been a collection of extracts from older works (as I think, too), but having to do with arcane philosophies and hot herbal springs (which I don’t think is so). I agree that the style of script (reminiscent of Carolingian minuscule), and the extreme neatness of the writing is compatible with an inscription by Poggio Bracciolini and/or others trained in the same ‘hand’, but I do not think that possibility eliminates all others and it does not account for idiosyncracies in the pictures.
S0, if you are a newcomer, do feel free to research and draw conclusions as you please. Your work may be ignored (try googling to see how many quote voynichimagery :D), or you may be dismissed, or honestly criticised or (to say truly) you may become a focus for some fairly vicious and highly personal attacks… We do live in the Age of the FaceBook, after all.
But chin up! It’s only to be expected, because ..
If you blog ‘Voynich’.. they will come.
and consider writing under a nom de plume or indeed of writing nothing at all online if you have an academic position. The mailing list generally presumes that newcomers are young, unqualified and amateur and one should also consider the view, here paraphrased, expressed by another researcher…
“Scarcely one academic… has studied the Voynich manuscript and kept his/her professional reputation unscathed”.