Once upon a time, history was a really hard subject to enjoy: a dreary rollcall of [macho/loser] kings and [powerful/scheming] queens, endlessly (a) conspiring against other, (b) fighting expensive wars where both sides tended to lose, and/or (c) endlessly frittering extorted tax money on self-glorifying monuments masquerading as high culture.

Then along came a new generation of “social historians”, who despised the superficial cheesiness of relying on historical records left by the victors, and wanted instead to read “history from below“. To do this, they sought out “authentic” (i.e. non-propagandized) documents to try to give a voice to ordinary people through the centuries and so reconstruct histories of the mundane, the plebeian – the salt rather than the spice.

Of course, each of these two kinds of history is no more or less a lie than the other. For all the self-aggrandizement and posturing implicit in ‘Big Man’ history, the truth of any matter will normally find a way of squeezing through the cracks in the text, particularly with the big-brain close readings of the modern linguistic turn to help it on its way. And even supposedly non-propagandistic items such as wills, inventories and account books are subject to understatement in the age-old “sport” of tax evasion. And so attempts to reduce history to a totalising big picture (whether from above or from below) simply don’t work: historians cannot avoid having to “sweat the small stuff“, because the answer all too often lies in simply getting the details right.

It is in the tension between these two extrema that I look at Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance: Consumer Cultures in Italy 1400-1600” (2005, Yale University Press). When I was researching my own book on Filarete, her “Art and Authority in Renaissance Milan” (1995, also Yale University Press) was permanently by my elbow, always at the ready to prevent me becoming entrapped by the sticky bubble of historical propaganda inflated around the Sforza court by Cicco Simonetta (and all too readily accepted as fact by older historians): so I had high hopes for her “Shopping”.

On the one hand, Welch’s book is a slab of social history par excellence, teasing out numerous otherwise marginal strands of ordinary life in the early Renaissance – street-sellers, auctions, lotteries, indulgences, fairs, shoes, shopping hours, pawnshops, feast days, credit, charlatans, and so forth. Yet on the other, Chapter Nine (“Shopping with Isabella d’Este”) is from the diametric opposite end of the social scale, an account of the elitist shopping habits of someone who would have been aghast to find out she had been born 350 years too soon for haute couture. After 240 textured pages of closely observed text riffing on various social historical shopping themes (richly illustrated with wonderful images of the ordinary), I felt somehow betrayed by the abrupt switch: a (quite literally) materialist snob like Isabella d’Este had no right to be there.

As is typical with horizontal historical studies, if you stick with them long enough you’ll find a prize to return home with: in my (Voynichological) case, pp.151-158 contained splendid descriptions and images of apothecaries’ shops, many including the kind of albarelli I put so much time into researching six years ago. A very pleasant surprise!

The one thing I found irritating about the text itself was the jarring style used for the incipits and desinits in each chapter. Rather than using the elegant yet spare historical prose of the chapter bodies themselves, these chatter with the abstracted, vacuous tokens of contemporary sociology-speak: space, surveillance, visibility, environment, transience, consumption, embedded, relations, networks, production. It is as if these were written by another hand, perhaps one attempting to weave together the threads of a decade’s-worth of individual papers into a tangibly coherent theoretical tapestry. If so, I think it was a failed experiment: social history is an activity based not around synthesizing the kind of vaguely structural frameworks beloved by sociologists, but around reconstructing the texture of ordinary lives. Essentially, the rich tapestry was already fully present, so there was no need to embellish the edges as well. Oh well!

I recently posted about the image of Voynich Manuscript page f56r on the Wikipedia page for the plant Sundew, and idly wondered where this new identification had come from.

Well… the answer turns out to be page 9 of the, errrm, snappily-titled 2007 book “The Curious World of Carnivorous Plants: A Comprehensive Guide to their Biology and Cultivation” (Timber Press) by Wilhelm Barthlott, Stefan Porembski, Rudiger Seine and Inge Theisen. Pretty much as I guessed, it was the plant’s set of (apparently thigmotropic) tentacles that convinced them of the match, which is fair enough.

This is consistent with the conclusions I drew in my book, which would indeed predict that (as a Herbal A page) the plant depicted probably is a plant (as opposed to something completely different disguised as a plant). You can also see where the heavy blue paint on the page has been contact transferred across to the facing page f55v (and in the opposite direction too): which is interesting, because f55v is a Herbal B page, and so the two pages were probably bound out of order. And so whereas the blue paint would very probably have been added after being misbound, the green paint might well be original (but it’s hard to be sure).

Incidentally, it was the oddly geometrical layout of the sundew-like tentacles on f56r that reminded Stan Tenen of the “1/r” spiral (the inverse or hyperbolic spiral), apparently a useful way of visualising the kind of whole-number fractions used by Ancient Egyptians for their maths. As a yet-further aside, this kind of inverse sequence reminds me of Keely‘s amazing claims, which form a part of Andrea Peters‘ book “The Voynich Solution” which I briefly mentioned here. All grist for the Voynichological mill!

Here’s another (and actually quite good) example of the Voynich meme eking its elliptical way into the collective cultural consciousness: courtesy of MySpace, a Californian duo in Hollister have put out a couple of tracks inspired by (and under the name of) the Voynich Manuscript. I’m actually a musician/composer myself, so I thought I’d review them here for you, in case you’re deaf or allergic to MP3s etc.

Their first track “Painted Lines of Perception” is a piece of electronica lightly daubed over a recording of ambient wind, with occasional urban-themed half-samples for colour. Voynichologically, I think the contrast between the wind (drawing?) and the music (paint?) does manage to evoke the kind of mismatched overpainting you get in the Herbal section, which came as a very pleasant surprise to me. It occasionally drifts into early 90s territory (slightly metally string pads), but it generally does its thing very nicely.

Having said that, their second track “Zodiacal Transmission” (a broadly similar ambient affair) doesn’t quite work as well. My guess is that the pinging synth motif in the middle section is supposed to evoke the stars in the Astro section, but I’m having to work fairly hard to get this registering on my Voynichometer. The guys have worked hard on the mix, and I really like the stereo imaging they achieved: but it’s not really as good as their “Painted Lines”.

Good luck to them!

The Saturday Guardian “Review” section contained a fascinating summary of “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher; or, the Murder at Road Hill House” (2008, Bloomsbury) by its author Kate Summerscale. In it, she argues that the gruesome events at a country house in Road Hill in Wiltshire (and the police response to them) formed the template for English detective novels, such as in Wilkie Collins’ well-known novel “The Moonstone” (1868).

The London detective sent to Road Hill, Inspector Jonathan Whicher, quickly “developed an ingenious solution to the mystery”: however, when his theory became publicly known, he was “reviled in the press and the House of Commons”, causing him to have a nervous breakdown and to retire from the force. Yet when, five years later, the murderer confessed, the grisly details were essentially as the detective had thought. All too late for poor Whicher, though.

What particularly caught my (Voynichological) eye in Summerscale’s article was the Road Hill case’s echo in Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s (1862) novel “Lady Audley’s Secret“. Braddon’s “tormented amateur detective Robert Audley” fearfully wonders who is the real madman – the woman he suspects of murder, or Audley himself caught in some kind of “obsessive delusion”:-

“What if I am wrong after all? What if this chain of evidence which I have constructed link by link is constructed out of my own folly? What if this edifice of horror and suspicion is a mere collection of crotchets – the nervous fancies of a hypochondriacal bachelor? Oh, my God, if it should be in myself all this time that the misery lies.”

All of which I think near-perfectly expresses the self-reflective terror that is (or at least should be) ever-present in the Voynichologist: reconstructive imagination perched on a precipice.

Before “The Moonstone”, the American history of the detective story goes back to Edgar Allan Poe’s (1841) “The Murders in the rue Morgue“, a locked room mystery with a surprising twist: but there is something about the English country house – its self-enclosed world of servants, class, envy, superficiality, insularity, etc – that lends itself to novel-length fiction.

Yet this is a false kind of knowledge, as the real Road Hill case demonstrates (Kate Summerscale reveals that Whicher believed two people were complicit in the murder, though only one confessed). In the context of constructing a 250-page book with neat closure, it is attractive: but the real world rarely fits into neatly filed boxes, carefully abstracted case-studies like the ones Harvard Business School professors famously used to construct in the 1960s and 1970s.

To me, this whole Victorian quest for smoking guns – for Holmesian certainty – is a kind of adolescent fantasy thinking, a pipedream of pure causality. In the real world, all we can actually do is sign up for the chase and give it our best shot: perhaps we will reach a satisfactory resolution in our attempts, perhaps we will not. But we must continue to try, all the same.

Voynich News just raced past the 2000 visitor mark (not counting mails sent to email/blog subscribers), which is nice: time to take stock and aim for a million visitors now, surely?

Over the last few days, I’ve been trying to do too many things at once, particularly with the arrival of a truly fabulous book from the American Philosophical Society (Vincent Ilardi’s “Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes”), which has somehow even been able to displace Thorndike Volume IV from the top of my reading list. I’ve also been writing an article, writing up more of the Treadwell’s Magic Circles evening, reviewing both Evelyn Welch’s “Shopping in the Renaissance” and an incredible web-based “booklet” that has to be seen to be believed… but I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ll see soon enough!

Someone with more confidence than I have in Voynichian botanical identification has put an image of f56r on the Wikipedia page for Sundew. Presumably the key feature match was the plant’s alien-style sticky tentacles, that bend forward when they’re touched by prey to entrap it (yes, it’s a carnivorous plant), a mechanism you’ll be delighted to know goes by the name of thigmotropism.

Hmmm… what if there are other carnivorous plants depicted in the VMs? All of a sudden, might our manuscript have acquired a “Little Shop of Horrors” cachet? Altogether now: “Feed me, Seymour… feed me now!

Here’s a claimed solution to the Beale Papers (but press Cancel on the login popup, and if browsing there under Windows, I wouldn’t advise installing the ActiveX control that pops up) which I didn’t know about until very recently. I thought I’d mention it here because, as any fule kno, the Beale Papers are one of the few encrypted historical mysteries to parallel the Voynich Manuscript to any significant degree.

To be precise, the Beale Papers comprise not one long ciphertext (putting the VMs’ thorny Currier A-B language continuum issue to one side) but three short codetexts, all allegedly dating from 1819-1821: part 2 was publicly announced in 1885 already solved (for its codebook, the encoder used a slightly mangled/miscopied version of the Declaration of Independence)… but the directions to the buried treasure were in the undecoded part 1, while the shorter (and also undecoded) part 3 listed the people involved. Of course, only someone who has broken the two remaining codes would know if all of this is true or not. 🙂

So, it’s basically a kind of Wild West bandit take on a pirate treasure map (which to me sounds like an Alias Smith and Jones script, oh well) but made obscure with some kind of dictionary code: all of which is reassuringly familiar if you’ve just read PopCo. Confusingly, some people argue that the Beale Papers are a fake (possibly by the promoter of the 1885 pamphlet, or even by Edgar Allen Poe, etc), claiming justification from statistical aspects of the cryptography and/or on claimed anachronisms in the language, etc: but a definitive answer either way has yet to be found.

For what it’s worth… my opinion is that, as with the VMs, cries of hoax are more Chicken Licken than anything approaching an ironic postmodernist reading. Really, it does look and feel basically how a home-cooked Victorian code-text ought to, with an emphasis towards lowish numbers (up to 350) plus a sprinkling of higher numbers (possibly for rare or awkward letters): Jim Gillogly’s observation (in October 1980 Cryptologia) of an alphabet-like pattern in part 1 (if you apply part 2’s codebook) seems to me more like a clue than a reason to reject the whole object as a hoax. As an aside, a few years ago I heard (off-Net) whispers of one particular cryptographic solution that had yet to be made public: but Louis Kruh in Cryptologia reported several such plausible-looking solutions as far back as 1982, so what can you say?

However, all of this is an entirely different claim to the “Beale Solved” code solution linked above, which was (re)constructed by Beale treasure hunter Daniel Cole (who died in 2001). Even though the dig that was carried out as a result of Cole’s decryption revealed an empty chamber (the website claims), the cryptographic details (ie, of how the codetext links with the plaintext) have yet to be released… which is a tad fishy.

A quick check of the first page of Cole’s version of part 3 reveals that he didn’t read it as a simple cipher or codebook, because repeated code-numbers only rarely get decoded as the same letter (for example, the five instances of ’96’ get decoded as “s / e / r / h / n”). Yet this seems somewhat odd: if there was some kind of strange offsetting going on, the distribution of code-numbers would not need to so closely resemble the kind of distribution you see in code book ciphers.

But once you confess to having taken a single step down the whole “it’s actually a strange cipher pretending to be a codebook code” route, nobody will believe a word you say, right?

I’ve been reading up on the pre-history of the telescope recently (hence my reviews of Eileen Reeves’ Galileo’s Glassworks and Albert van Helden’s The Invention of the Telescope), but have omitted to mention why I thought this might be of relevance to the Voynich Manuscript.

The answer relates to Richard SantaColoma’s article in Renaissance Magazine #53 (March 2007) with the title “The Voynich Manuscript: Drebbel’s Lost Notebook?”, which claimed to find a persuasive familial similarity between the curious jars arranged vertically in the pharma sections and Renaissance microscopes, specifically those described or designed by Cornelius Drebbel. His (updated) research also appears here.

The biggest problem with Voynich hypotheses is that, given 200+ pages of interesting stuff, it is comparatively easy to dig up historical evidence that appears to show some kind of correlation. In the case SantaColoma’s webpage, this category covers the stars, the hands, braids, caps, colours, four elements, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and handwriting matches suggested: none of these is causative, and the level of correlation is really quite low. All of which is still perfectly OK, as these parallels are only presented as suggestive evidence, not as any kind of direct proof.

It is also tempting to use a given hypothesis to try to support itself: in the 1920s, William Romaine Newbold famously did this with his own circular hypothesis, where he said that the only way that the manuscript’s microscopic cipher could have been written was with the aid of a microscope, ergo Roger Bacon must have invented the microscope. All false, of course. Into this second category falls the “cheese mold”, “diatoms” and “cilia” of SantaColoma’s webpage: if these are to used as definitive proof of the presence of microscopy in the VMs, the level of correlation would need to be substantially higher. But these parallels are, once again, only presented as suggestive evidence, not proof.

Strip all these away, and you’re still left with the real meat of SantaColoma’s case: a set of striking similarities between 17th century microscopes and the curious devices in the Voynich Manuscript’s pharma section. Even if (as I do) you doubt that all the colouring on the pages was original (and upon which some of SantaColoma’s argument seems to rest), it’s an interesting observation.

Having said that, no actual proof or means of proof (or disproof) is offered: it is just a set of observations, resting upon a relatively little-tested tranche of history, that of the microscope. Can we do better? I think we can.

Firstly, modern telescope historians (I’m thinking of Albert van Helden here, though he is far from alone in this respect) now seem somewhat dubious of the various Janssen family claims: and so I’m far from comfortable with placing the likely birth of the microscope with the Janssens in 1590. As Richard SantaColoma points out, Cornelius Drebbel is definitely one of the earliest documented microscope makers (from perhaps a little earlier than 1620, but probably not much before 1612, I would guess).

Secondly, it is likely that the power of the lenses available for spectacles pre-1600 was not great: Albert van Helden calculated that a telescope made to della Porta’s (admittedly cryptic) specification could only have given a magnification of around 2x, which would be no more than a telescopic toy. I would somewhat surprised if microscopes constructed from the same basic components had significantly higher magnification.

Thirdly, the claimed presence of knurled edges in the VMs’ images would only make sense if used in conjunction with a fine screwthread, to enable the vertical position of an element along the optical axis to be varied: but I’m not sure when these were invented or adapted for microscopes.

All in all, I would assert that if what is being depicted in the VMs’ pharma section is indeed microscopes from the same family as were built by Drebbel from (say) 1610 onwards, there would seem no obvious grounds for dating this to significantly earlier than 1610: even if it all came directly from Della Porta, around 1589 would seem to be the earliest tenable date.

The problem is that there is plenty of art historical data which places the VMs circa 1450-1500: and a century-long leap would seem to be hard to support without more definitive evidence.

As always, there are plenty of Plan B hypotheses, each of which has its own unresolved issues:-
(a) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 16th century inventor/tradition
(b) they are microscropes/telescopes, but from an unknown 15th century inventor/tradition
(c) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, they just happen to look a bit like them
(d) they’re not microscopes/telescopes, but were later emended/coloured to look like them
(e) it’s all a Dee/Kelley hoax (John Dee was Thomas Digges’ guardian from the age of 13)

Despite everything I’ve read about the early history of the telescope and microscope, I really don’t think that we currently can resolve this whole issue (and certainly not with the degree of certainty that Richard SantaColoma suggests). The jury remains out.

But I can offer some observations based on what is in the Voynich Manuscript itself, and this might cast some light on the matter for those who are interested.

(1) The two pharma quires seem to be out of order: if you treat the ornate jars as part of a visual sequence, it seems probable that Q19 (Quire 19) originally came immediately before Q17 in the original binding.

(2) The same distinctive square “filler” motif appears in the astronomical section (f67r1, f67r2, f67v1), the zodiac section (Pisces, light Aries), the nine rosette page (central rosette), and in a band across the fifth ornate jar in Q19. This points not only to their sharing the same scribe, but also to a single (possibly even improvised) construction/design process: that is, the whole pharma section is not simply a tacked-on addition, it is an integral part of the manuscript.

(3) Some paint on the pharma jars appear original: but most seems to be a later addition. For example: on f99v, I could quite accept that the palette of (now-faded) paints used to colour in the plants and roots was original (and I would predict that a spectroscopic or Raman analysis would indicate that this was probably comprised solely of plant-based organic paints), which would be consistent with the faded original paint on the roots of f2v. However, I would think that the bolder (and, frankly, a little uglier) paints used on the same page were not original.

Put all these tiny fragments together, and I think this throws doubt on one key part of SantaColoma’s visual argument. He claims that the parallel hatching inside the ornate jar at the top of f88r (the very first jar in Q17) is a direct indication that it is a lens we are looking at, fixed within a vertical optical structure. However, if you place Q19 before Q17 (as I believe the original order to have been), then a different story emerges. The ten jars immediately before f88v (ie at the end of Q19) all have vertical parallel hatching inside their tops, none of which looks at all like the subtle lens-like shading to which SantaColoma is referring. For reference, I’ve reproduced the tops of the last four jars below, with the final two heavily image-enhanced to remove the heavy (I think later) overpainting that has obscured much of the finer detail.

This is the “mouth” of the top jar on f102r: the vertical parallel hatching seems to depict the back wall of a jar, ending in a pool of faintly-coloured yellow liquid (probably the original paint).


This is the mouth of the bottom jar on f102r, which appears to have vertical parallel hatching right down, as though the jar is empty near the top (or perhaps its contents are clear).

This is the top jar on 102v, enhanced to remove the paint. I think some vertical hatching is still visible there: it would take a closer examination to determine what was originally drawn there.

This is the bottom jar on f102v, again heavily enhanced to remove paint. Vertical hatching of some sort is visible.

The Voynich Manuscript meme continues to tap at our cultural windows, asking politely to be let in from the rain. And sometimes people do…

For example, here’s a knitted squid sitting on a copy of Gawsewitch’s “Le Code Voynich” (don’t be put off by the LiveJournal 14+ age warning, it really is a knitting page).

Over at evilbore, Eric P is getting cross about how the VMs is sneaking in under the cultural radar: “What’s caused this subconscious societal permeation of this obscure text?” he asks, before linking to Voynich News (good call!)

Or alternatively, here’s someone called Malcolm starting a game of Lexicon based around a (fictional) deciphering of the VMs. Lexicon is an RPG where players take on the role of cranky scholars building a faux Wikipedia (one letter at a time, hence the name) around a fictional world, while trying not to cite themselves. Errrm… just like the real Wikipedia, then. 😉

Norbert R. Ibanez has posted up some thoughts on the VMs in ‘English’ (with a PDF you can download): though his ideas may be basically OK, I don’t like his automatic translator much. 🙁

And finally, I’ve had some visitors from a posting about my VQ (“Voynich Quotient“) page put up on the Yog-Sothoth forums (dedicated to H. P. Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu players). One poster mentions “Keeper’s Companion Vol. 1, p.63“, where it presumably links the VMs to the Necronomicon: add that to the ever-growing web of Voynich references out there.

Shopping in the Renaissance“, Evelyn Welch [finished, still need to write review]

Astrology: a history“, Peter Whitfield [about half-way through, lots of good stuff]

Elizabeth’s Spy Master“, Robert Hutchinson [80 pages in, but a bit of a dour character to read much about]

The Renaissance in Europe: A Reader”, Keith Whitlock [Still not yet started this, beginning to wonder if I ever will]

Decipher” Stel Pavlou [33 pages in, a nice bit of superficial fun, shame I don’t have a beach holiday to take it on]

“History of Magic & Experimental Science” Vol. IV (Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries), Lynn Thorndike [20 pages in, but everything else has to go on hold while I read it]