Given that the Voynich Manuscript is owned by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, you’d perhaps expect its online description of the VMs to be sober, accurate and helpful – a useful antidote to the speculation-filled Wikipedia VMs page.

Unfortunately, it isn’t.

As a technical writing exercise, I thought I’d dismantle its description to give a more accurate picture of where sensible Voynich research now is…

Written in Central Europe

Hmmm… because the pictures (Italian architecture) and the zodiac marginalia (Occitan) both seem to point to Southern Europe and I can’t really think of any evidence that specifically points to Central Europe, this is hardly an encouraging start to the whole page. Oh well…

at the end of the 15th or during the 16th century,

Given that John Matthews Manly pointed out 75 years ago that the VMs’ quire numbers were written in a 15th century hand, and that we are now quite sure that these were not original, I think “or possibly during the 16th century” might be more balanced (basically, to throw a sop to the vocal hoax and Askham clans).

the origin, language, and date of the Voynich Manuscript—named after the Polish-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who acquired it in 1912—

Polish-Anglo-American” would be more accurate, as would “who claimed to have acquired it in 1912” (Voynich was never completely open about how he bought it).

are still being debated as vigorously as its puzzling drawings and undeciphered text.

Fair enough. 🙂

Described as a magical or scientific text,

…as well as a heretical, alien, channelled, medical, or nonsensical text (unfortunately). Not really a helpful clause, so probably should be dropped.

nearly every page contains botanical, figurative, and scientific drawings of a provincial but lively character,

As the paragraph then goes on to categorize the drawings, reducing this to “…contains drawings of a provincial but lively character” would probably be an improvement.

drawn in ink with vibrant washes in various shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red.

This isn’t particularly accurate: while some colours are indeed vibrant (redolent of 16th century inorganic paints), some are actually very faded (redolent of faded organic washes). Describing them all as “washes” also misses out the entire “light painter / heavy painter” debate that has been ongoing for some years.

Based on the subject matter of the drawings,

Rather too simplistic: “based on the apparent subject matter” would be more correct.

the contents of the manuscript falls into six sections:

Again, this doesn’t really do justice to the nuanced view that Voynich researchers now take: which is that the names of the sections are mainly useful as a means for referencing them, whatever the actual contents ultimately turn out to be. Hence, I would replace this with “Voynich researchers group the pages of the manuscript together into six categories”.

1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species;

Actually, Voynich researchers prefer to call these “herbal” pages, because European botany (in its modern sense) only really began in the 16th century with Leonhart Fuchs and (arguably) Ulisse Aldrovandi, hence the term “botanical” might well be anachronistic. Furthermore, “unidentified” isn’t really true, since there are a handful of plants (most notably the water lily on f2v!) about which nobody seems to argue. So, “1) herbal pages containing drawings of 113 plant species, most of which are unidentified” should be preferred. Also, this omits from the count the second set of herbal pages in Q15 and Q17: and even adding those would fail to notice that some of the herbal drawings are apparently duplicated on different pages (most notably f17v and f96v, but there are others). So, “113” is a bit of a questionable number: I’d prefer “more than 120″.

2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures;

Again, Voynich researchers not only prefer to call these “cosmological” and “zodiacal” pages, but also normally split them up into seprate sections. “Astral charts” isn’t really certain, so perhaps “circular diagrams containing stars” would be more representative. The Sagittarius “archer” is actually a crossbowman, which (yet again) has a debate all of its own. A good number of the zodiac nymphs are clothed rather than nude (particularly in Pisces), only a minority are placed in “pipes or chimneys” (which might equally well be maiolica albarelli), and not all of them are female.

3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules;

These days, Voynich researchers generally prefer to call Quire 13 the “balneological” section (though I myself sometimes just call it the “water” section), because “biological” seems rather to be prejudging the contents. Again, I prefer to call the naked figures “water nymphs” rather than “nudes”, as this fits in with the general water / bathing theme, and also serves to separate them from the (quite different) zodiac nymphs.

4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms;

We prefer “rosettes” to medallions; they are all drawn across a single 3×2 fold-out sexfolio, and would be more accurately described as “apparently depicting architectural and geographical forms“. Calling them “cosmological” seems unnecessarily presumptuous.

5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and

The term “pharmacological” has long been preferred for these: and there is an ongoing debate (hi, Rich) about the wide range of jars and vessels depicted.

6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.

Personally, I’d say they’re more likely to be “flower-like comets” (i.e. some kind of pun on “caput”) than “star-like flowers”, but who knows? And they apparently mark the start of each paragraph (i.e. chapter / caput), rather than an “entry”.

History of the Collection

Like its contents, the history of ownership of the Voynich manuscript is contested and filled with some gaps. The codex belonged to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (Holy Roman Emperor, 1576-1612), who purchased it for 600 gold ducats and believed that it was the work of Roger Bacon.

This doesn’t really summarize Marci’s letter to Kircher at all. Though Marci had heard these things, he didn’t know if they were true (and he seems keen to distance himself from the Roger Bacon claim).

It is very likely that Emperor Rudolph acquired the manuscript from the English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608). Dee apparently owned the manuscript along with a number of other Roger Bacon manuscripts.

No: although Wilfrid Voynich quickly took the view that this is what must have happened, it is actually very unlikely.

In addition, Dee stated that he had 630 ducats in October 1586, and his son noted that Dee, while in Bohemia, owned “a booke…containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.”

Even though this is a pretty slim pair of reeds to construct a castle upon, that hasn’t stopped plenty of would-be builders since Wilfrid Voynich trying.

Emperor Rudolph seems to have given the manuscript to Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (d. 1622), an exchange based on the inscription visible only with ultraviolet light on folio 1r which reads: “Jacobi de Tepenecz.”

Actually, it reads rather closer to “Jacobj z Tepenec“, and there is also a deleted “Prag” beneath it.

Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland presented the book to Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) in 1666.

Once again, Marci tried to present the book to Kircher in 1665 (not 1666), but we have no evidence it actually arrived. Other cipher pages sent with correspondence to Kircher have disappeared, though: all in all, the manuscript’s precise provenance for the next century remains something of a mystery.

In 1912, Wilfred M. Voynich purchased the manuscript from the Jesuit College at Frascati near Rome. In 1969, the codex was given to the Beinecke Library by H. P. Kraus, who had purchased it from the estate of Ethel Voynich, Wilfrid Voynich’s widow.

Actually, Hans Kraus bought it from Anne M. Nill, who had inherited it from Ethel Voynich.

References

Goldstone, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone. 2005. The Friar and the Cipher: Roger Bacon and the Unsolved Mystery of the Most Unusual Manuscript in the World. New York: Doubleday.

Romaine Newbold, William. 1928. The Cipher of Roger Bacon. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Manly, John Mathews. 1921. “The Most Mysterious Manuscript in the World: Did Roger Bacon Write It and Has the Key Been Found?”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine 143, pp.186–197.

Really? A Voynich bibliography without Mary D’Imperio’s “The Voynich Manuscript – An Elegant Enigma”, without Jean-Claude Gawsewitch’s “Le Code Voynich” near-facsimile edition, and without (dare I say) “The Curse of the Voynich”? Not very impressive.

In summary, then, it’s an article which (despite mentioning a 2005 book) seems to reflect the inaccuracies and fallacies of Voynich research circa 1970. I’d happily rewrite it for them – but is the Beinecke actually interested? I wonder…

15 thoughts on “The Beinecke Library’s Voynich Manuscript page…

  1. Dennis on October 7, 2009 at 3:18 pm said:

    Hi Nick! You’ve essentially done a rewrite here. Why don’t you send it to them, or discuss it with them? You’ve made the Hajj, so you understand them better than I.

  2. Here’s what it would look like: please can you check it through before I send it to the Beinecke?

    * * * * ** * * * * *

    Written in Southern (or possibly Central) Europe at the end of the 15th (or possibly during the 16th) century, the origin, language, and date of the Voynich Manuscript—named after the Polish-Anglo-American antiquarian bookseller, Wilfrid M. Voynich, who claimed to have acquired it in 1912— are still being debated as vigorously as its puzzling drawings and undeciphered text. Nearly every page contains hard-to-identify drawings of a provincial but lively character, drawn in ink but overpainted in many shades of green, brown, yellow, blue, and red.
    Based on the apparent subject matter of the drawings, Voynich researchers group the pages of the manuscript together into seven categories:
    1) herbal pages containing drawings of more than 120 plant species, most of which are unidentified;
    2) circular astronomical/cosmological drawings (some apparently calendrical), comprised of radial patterns of suns, moons, and stars;
    3) circular astrological/zodiacal drawings, one or two per zodiac sign, where each sign has 30 associated stars and 29 or 30 usually-naked (and nearly always female) ‘zodiac nymphs’, a central graphical representation of the sign, together with a month name, apparently written in Occitan and added by a later owner;
    4) a balneological / water section, containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female ‘water nymphs’, most with swollen abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules;
    5) an elaborate array of nine rosettes drawn across a single 3×2 fold-out sexfolio, apparently depicting architectural and/or geographical forms;
    6) pharmacological drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed beside what appear to be maiolica albarelli, pixidae, or unusual glass containers, overpainted in bold red, green and blue;, and
    7) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes or an almanack, with star-like flowers (or flower-like comets) in the margins marking the start of each paragraph.
    History of the Collection
    Like its contents, the history of ownership of the Voynich manuscript is contested and filled with some gaps. According to a 1665 letter found with it, the codex was reputed both to have been purchased by Emperor Rudolph II of Germany (Holy Roman Emperor, 1576-1612) for 600 gold ducats, and to have been made by Roger Bacon. Though it has been suggested that Emperor Rudolph acquired the manuscript from the English astrologer John Dee (1527-1608), there is no direct evidence that supports this claim. The manuscript appears to have passed from Rudolph II to his Imperial Distiller, Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz (d. 1622), based on the inscription visible only with ultraviolet light on folio 1r which appears to read: “Jacobj z Tepenec / Prag”. Johannes Marcus Marci of Cronland, the author of the letter mentioned above, tried to present the book to Athanasius Kircher S.J (1601-1680) in 1665, but there is no evidence that Kircher ever received it. All the same, the manuscript ended up in the possession of the Jesuits, where it remained until around 1912 when Wilfrid Voynich purchased the manuscript from the Jesuit College based at the Villa Mondragone at Frascati near Rome. In 1969, the codex was given to the Beinecke Library by H. P. Kraus, who had purchased it from Anne M. Nill, who had inherited it from Ethel Voynich, Wilfrid Voynich’s widow.
    References
    D’Imperio, Mary (1976). “The Voynich Manuscript – An Elegant Enigma”
    Kennedy, Gerry; Churchill, Rob (2004). “The Voynich Manuscript: The unsolved riddle of an extraordinary book which has defied interpretation for centuries”
    Gawsewitch, Jean-Claude (2005). “Le Code Voynich”.
    Pelling, Nicholas, (2006). “The Curse of the Voynich”.

  3. Rene Zandbergen on October 8, 2009 at 1:35 am said:

    Hi Nick,

    the Beinecke text was written by Barbara Shailor, several decades ago.
    Eventually, it could be updated, but this isn’t quite the right time yet.

    Cheers, Rene

  4. Hi Rene,

    Google has now picked up on the Beinecke’s page and is ranking it quite highly – #14 for “Voynich”, higher than this site – yet is full of outdated and unhelpful information. You can’t blame me for wanting to change it. 🙂

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  5. As of this morning, 10/9/09, in the States, the Beinecke is number 8. Here is the list as it appears to me:

    1- Wikipedia
    2- Rene/Dana’s main site
    3- Image results
    4- John Baez
    5- World Mysteries
    6- The VMs-net
    7- The Chrystalinks lady
    8- The Beinecke
    9- Museum of Hoaxes
    10- The funny but annoying comic
    11- Timeline results
    12- Voynich Central
    13- little old me
    14- Rene again
    15- Wired article about Rugg
    16- Flicker VMs jpegs…
    17- Radio Free Europe 2004 article
    18- That Necronomicon stuff
    19- Cipher Mysteries
    20- Archimedes Laboratory article

    But it seems to jump around… like leapfrogs… every few weeks. But in general I think it shows a really good overview for anyone clicking on the first few Google pages of Voynich information…

    BTW I agree the Beinecke should be updated at some point… of course I would suggest some wording other than yours in the final version, although I think it is very good all in all.

  6. It is indeed fairly annoying how all the sites from #8 to #22 move around on a regular basis. Every couple of months Cipher Mysteries jumps up to #8, before slowly sinking back down to about #22 before lurching back up to #8 again… the mysteries of Google, eh?

    As far as the Beinecke goes, I suspect that Rene’s comment (above) was gently flagging that the Beinecke may well put up a more substantial Voynich-related web page / site to coincide with the release of the Austrian documentary next year. But we shall doubtless see how that all goes…

  7. Dennis on October 10, 2009 at 5:44 am said:

    Hi Nick!

    1) Instead of “at the end of the 15th (or possibly during the 16th) century,” I’d say “probably 1450-1550.” That’s how we commonly phrase it, and I can’t see it later than 1550.

    2) Tone down the Roger Bacon reference. since Marci himself was skeptical and we certainly don’t believe it. Let’s get that bad penny out of circulation!

    Otherwise fine!

    Cheers,
    Dennis

  8. Hi Dennis,

    The problem with 1450-1550 is that it runs counter to the palaeography: though Leonell Strong’s Anthony Askham hypothesis has many things to commend it, it does run directly counter to that evidence, and so supporters (such as GC, of course) have to start out by arguing that mainstream palaeography is broken – something that the Beinecke site probably couldn’t sign up to.

    The next-best alternative scenario is a late-16th century fake, which (for all its supporters over the years) I can only really categorize as a “possibly” rather than a “probably”. So personally, I would write it as “written at the end of the 15th century (or possibly hoaxed at the end of the 16th century)”: but the wording as suggested above is a slightly more hedged version of the same.

    The Roger Bacon reference is pretty low-key: whether true or false, it remains the earliest “opinion” of the VMs we have, so probably should be included – it may yet come to have some historical bearing on what the VMs was doing during the 16th century. Who apart from John Dee (and perhaps in Europe) collected Roger Bacon manuscripts?

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

  9. Rene Zandbergen on October 10, 2009 at 6:41 pm said:

    Hi Nick,

    on your #6, you’re spot on 🙂 I don’t know, however, if they will update it.

    Note that the release date is still this year, but only on ORF (Austrian national TV).

    The English version will probably take another month.

    Cheers, Rene

  10. Dennis on October 11, 2009 at 5:23 am said:

    Hi Nick! OK on the date comment. On Roger Bacon, I’d say that Marci’s letter indicated that “some said at the time” that Roger Bacon was the author”; it’s not on the same footing as his reference to Rudolf II.

    One other thing: I’d note that Gawsewitch’s book is a near-facsimile of the VMs, i.e. not “just” a reference about it.

    Cheers,
    Dennis

  11. Rene Zandbergen on October 13, 2009 at 9:07 am said:

    Only a detail, but I’m still skeptical about the occitan.
    I found a few more hints about the usage of ‘octember’. In a dictionary
    for ME and Renaissance Latin, this was quoted to be used around 1000.
    In a dictionary of ‘old french’, it was listed as ‘octembre’ and used
    throughout the 13th to 15th centuries (some quotes given). This was
    more in northern France. This is of course incomplete information
    but it is something that can be traced further, and seems worthwhile.

    Unfortunately I don’t have access to these dictionaries anymore.

  12. Octembre is most like a generic post-Latin Romance language rendering of October, so isn’t really strong evidence on its own The similarity to Occitan is for the list as a whole: personally, I’m quite taken by “març“, which I don’t think was ever a feature of Northern French. But, as always, your mileage may vary. 🙂

  13. Diane O'Donovan on June 11, 2013 at 12:07 pm said:

    Would anyone else who reads Nick’s blog be willing to join me in petitioning Yale University to have the blurb presently fronting Ms Beinecke 408 replaced by something more in keeping with the dignity of that august institution?

    It is an embarrassment in its wrong dates, inclusion of outmoded ‘kites’ flown, and the nonsensical dating.

    The bald assertion that ‘Rudolf owned it’ begs important historical questions.

    The completely wrong dating has most recently persuaded a professional codicologist that the manuscript is ‘out of their time frame’ (which ends when printing is introduced to Italy – fifty years and more later than the C-14 date).

    And no-body of any sense (excluding the very few) wants to risk an academic reputation by investigating a manuscript described in the ludricrous way the Voynich now is.

    The petition I envisage would simply request that the present blurb on the Beinecke site be replaced with one after the model of (say) the British Library’s digitised manuscripts. We could attach an example, even.

    Diane

  14. Diane: I suspect the Beinecke curators see the same thing in reverse – i.e. that until such time as ‘proper historians’ start taking an interest in it, my guess is that they’ll leave the current description to wither on the vine.

    I doubt this description is something they’re losing any sleep over, however ludicrous it may seem in light of more recent research.

  15. Diane O'Donovan on June 11, 2013 at 3:31 pm said:

    No wonder that a majority of scholars and specialists refuse to comment. That blurb’s the first thing most of them look at!

    I know – and I’m sure you do too – what happens when a courteous and knowledgeable don at first agrees to take a look at some specific issue, then suddenly turns on a threepence and virtually pats one on the head with the diplomatic equivalent of ‘Not on your life – nor my reputation’.

    Why can’t the blurb read like normal sort of manuscript description – plain codicology would do.

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