I’ve had it suggested that to entertain a popular audience, a Voynich Manuscript documentary should showcase a live reenactment of its naked ladies bathing in green muddy slime. In this film-making scenario, the cameras could linger longingly on their most interesting period features, which (I can only presume) means their hair and makeup. Doubtless it would look great in HD, etc. But where does this mad desire to be so gratuitously populist come from? “Voynich” already gets over 600,000 hits on Google – not as many as Justin Bieber, sure, but it does have far more hair styles to choose from. 🙂

[As an historical aside, the apparent presence of medicinal baths in the manuscript arguably gives it a terminus ante quo of around 1500, because that is when people began to blame those same baths for contemporary ills such as syphilis. Just so you know!]

Personally, I suspect that – for the most part – naked women are used in the Voynich as some kind of cryptographic / steganographic ruse to get people’s decrypting brains either to shut down completely or to open up too far to be useful: a systematic misdirection trick, drawing your attention away from where the real information is held on the page. But that’s another story for another day…

Anyway, a Voynich paper is currently being prepared by Lincoln Taiz and Saundra Lee Taiz: this revolves around the idea that (what they call) the “dominant” presence of the green pools with the water-section nymphs indicates that Quire 13 should receive, like the early herbal sections, a botanical interpretation. Specifically, they suggest that this section of the VMs might be based around various questions posed by Nicolaus of Damascus (who lived 2000 years ago) in his book De Plantis, and that its green paint leitmotif simply represents chlorophyll… and so on.

As with all Voynich theories, they might conceivably be right … but if they are, I suspect it will turn out be for quite the wrong reasons. You see, if you go to the trouble of reconstructing parts of the folio order for Quire 13 (and, generally, try to untangle the Voynich Manuscript’s codicological skein), you discover a number of curious things:-

  • The quire numbers were added after being misbound
  • The original quires almost certainly had no quire numbers
  • Quire 13 was originally painted in a (now faded and patchy) blue colour
  • The green paint was added much later, right on top of the blue paint

As direct visual evidence, I’m completely certain that the two pages (f78v and f81r) below originally sat right next to each other in the alpha state of the manuscript – there are numerous symmetries to be seen in the layout, design, shape. Yet on the left page, you can see where the (original) blue paint was added, while the right page has the same blue paint but is also overpainted with heavy green paint. I’m (furthermore) quite sure that the green paint was added after the quire numbers were added, and so were almost certainly not added by the original author (and, I’d add, probably not even in the same century as him or her).

Voynich Manuscript, f84v placed next to f78r

I also – along with Glen Claston – suspect that Quire 13 was constructed in two separate phases (GC calls these “Q13b” and “Q13a”), and that the balneology-themed part (Q13b) probably came first, with the trickier (and more conceptual?) water-themed part (Q13a) later. Overall I don’t see any botanical theme at all in either section, and so can only read the Taiz’s hypothesis as a plausible (but almost certainly wrong) guess based on a single visual element – a layer of green paint that was absent from the manuscript’s original state.

To paraphrase Rene Zandbergen slightly, success in Voynich research comes not from guessing well but from consistently avoiding bad mistakes. Sorry, but it seems very much to me as though this particular thesis is not destined for success. 🙁

18 thoughts on “Green Voynich pools? I really don’t *think* so, sorry. :-(

  1. Diane on March 5, 2011 at 4:09 am said:

    If there were time these days – which alas there is not just yet – I’d make up a list of works in which the coded meaning for colours – in medieval context – is discussed. Perhaps someone else has already done so in regard to the VMs? I may have mentioned that the blue/green distinction marked reading of Roman letters according to literary or numerical values. Perhaps that habit – introduced from early NthAfrica if I recall – influenced other cultures, and contexts too. Then there’s the blue for fresh water, and the green for salt waters (esp. of the Medit and the oceans). And again Virgin’s blue, monastic “green” martydom and so forth. It’s a large and fascinating topic, but luckily museum and gallery people know so much more about it now than they did 50 yrs ago.

  2. John Kozak on March 5, 2011 at 9:39 am said:

    because that is when people began to blame those same baths for contemporary ills such as syphilis

    Coincidentally, I read the discussion of this in Braudel’s “Civilization and Capitalism” last night. Public baths survived in Eastern Europe, of course.

    Page 353 of C&C vol 1 has a tantalising, if sadly nymph-free, VM-like image of a Bohemian water-wheel. Shout if you’d like a scan.

  3. John: SHOUT! 🙂

  4. Diane: all true and interesting, but the downside is that countless crank historians (and breathless novelists) have tuned into broadly the same colour symbolism channel, all of whom seem (in my opinion) to vastly overplay its significance. *sigh*

  5. Rene Zandbergen on March 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm said:

    Hi Nick,

    while I strongly applaud your interest and efforts in trying to reconstruct the Voynich-MS-as-we-know-it order of contruction, I am not yet convinced that the green pools shown above have been painted over original blue pools. One can see a speck of blue shining between the green stripes right near the top, but nowehere else. Evidence to the contrary more than welcome of course.

    Also, the blue hasn’t really faded. These are minerals that keep their colour. It could be that the painter did not have that much ‘blue’ available, as this may have been quite costly. The green pools may be the there for such a down to Earth reason…

  6. Rene: it’s possible – but f78v, f81r, f81v all have green paint unambiguously on top of blue paint, and in all of these the blue paint looks somewhat threadbare and sparse (is that more accurate than “faded”?). It’s probably yet another issue that requires multispectral scans to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. 🙂

  7. Hi Rene,if you will allow me to explain the colors.Alchemist had enough paint.Everything is symbol. I paint.
    Blue = vinager= acid.
    Green = green evil.
    Green evil is a special blend.
    Evil. = Acid is not good.Tterefore evil.
    (Also refers to the emerald plate).
    The woman,a virgin = symbol of distillation.
    Nick, I just am finishig 84v side.
    Colors in the manuscript.
    Nick,now thing.And read.
    The ,,OLD,,alchemical books are written. :
    I’ll tell you about the stone.
    And it’s not rock.
    It’s like water dust.
    And there’s no dust.
    It’s like a thick milk spills.
    And there’s no milk.
    It’s not mud. As the mud.
    It’s like a ,,Green,,poisonous thing.
    And it’s not poison.
    It’s all medicine …….
    It’s Earth.
    (therefore manuscript,in green ink. Among other things. Also hidden in that sense.Emerald Tablets.)

  8. Artur on March 8, 2011 at 4:55 pm said:

    Hi, nice to follow your conversations. I don’t know who said what about period features of nymphettes, but generous curves are more of a period feature than hairstyle and makeup, which most anorectic models nowadays exhibit. Therefore I should agree with the idea of a useful bathing reenactment for the documentary. This helps me introduce my latest guess at the VMs mistery. It could be a sort of publication with missing playmate foldouts. I can sense that missing pages deprive us of crucial information, beautifully above the ultimate meaning of text.

  9. Artur on March 8, 2011 at 5:35 pm said:

    Why were 7 ladies painted in the higher tubs on either page, and 8 in the lower tubs? And why the eighth lady looks on either page like she was added following some afterthought? Always better one moreof course, but is it coincidental?

  10. Artur,Hola,
    Women not women.
    Women are the symbol.
    Symbol -element.

  11. Artur: it’s a good question! In the original layout, this would have been four “tubs” each with 7 nymphs, with two extra ones squeezed in – i.e. 7 x 4 = 28, while 7 x 2 + 8 x 2 = 30. If we could compare the inks used to draw the extra nymphs, it might be obvious whether these were part of the original design or part of a later (and possibly obfuscatory?) layer. We already have all the 30-fold zodiac nymph division (which presumably is some kind of Pietro d’Abano-esque per-degree judicial astrology?), perhaps this has some kind of similar 30-way structural sense? Also, there’s a nymph squeezed into the central fold (a centrefold nude?) at the bottom left of f84r, so maybe it’s just a stylistic thing?

  12. Artur on March 9, 2011 at 8:48 am said:

    No idea, Nick, but I love your enquiry (sic). Josef, I know what you mean, the Song of Songs is also a symbol for the love of God. Of course. So relax, there’s nothing wrong about enjoying divinely symbolic curves. 😉

  13. Hi,Nick.
    Question.Why was the manusript of Rudolf II.
    Answer. Because it’s alchemy.

  14. Big news, maybe.

    I think the reason for the ‘balneology’ imagery being employed for that section is a multi-lingual pun. i won’t bother explaining the non-Latin part, but among the Latin mariners **especially the Genoese** it probably refers to the Treaty of Nymphaion. Nymphaion was a winter capital of the late Byzantine emperors in Asia minor. I’m quite excited by this development for all sort of reasons. Writing about it on ‘Findings’ blog. Now sending you an invitation to it.

  15. Diane: I’d be surprised if it was a punning reference to Nymphaion. From the baths, the pools, the plumbing and even the rainbows, it seems most likely to me that Q13 (or, more precisely, Q13a and Q13b) are book(s) of water, and as such the visual presence of water nymphs there is far more likely to be an expression of classical erudition and/or familiarity with Greek sources than some kind of high-minded contemporary geopolitical pun. Sorry, but it doesn’t seem that complicated to me?!

  16. Umm – not quite what I meant. Possibly the imagery’s ‘encoding’ of the routes had already been done in a mosaic or some such. But if you wanted to disguise a map worth its weight in silk and spices, this would be a nice way to do it, the ‘nymphs’ making sense to the Genoese, who surely learned from the classical works preserved in Asia minor and Byzantium, and who had the Nymphaion treaty to thank for it. Not so sophisticated all in all.

  17. Byron Deveson on August 24, 2014 at 3:13 pm said:

    About the green bath water. To me, the green bath water strongly suggests sulphurous hot springs. It is, of course, possible that the pigment has changed colour with age, but this is potentially testable. Or that blue has been over-painted with green. But this is also testable.
    Sulphurous hot springs are generally (in my experience) green, often a vivid emerald green, whereas any other “green” water is usually not the sort of stuff that you would want to bathe in. I note that the hot mineral spring baths at Pozzuoli (near Naples) have been previously suggested as the inspiration for the balneological drawings in the Voynich Manuscript. These hot springs are sulphurous and are apparently fed from sulphatara waters associated with volcanism at Mt Vesuvius.
    There is one illustration where the water is coloured blue. It seems that the colour difference is deliberate, and the blue pool of water is a rinsing tub. Sulphurous water (green) may be a health tonic, but you would still want to rinse it off.

  18. Byron: the difficult thing about the colours is that if you try to reconstruct the original bifolio order of Quire 13 (the whole “balneological” quire), you find that those two pages originally sat facing one another near the middle of the quire. That to me implies that at least some of the painting of these pages was done later, by someone who had no idea what order the pages should be in: and hence that we should be extremely careful about drawing inferences from the colours of the paint added to these pages. All in all, it’s a logical minefield, one that most people walk across blithely unaware of. =:-o

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