Today’s addition to The Big Fat List is “L’UOMO NELLA LUCE” by Walter Martinelli (2007), published on-demand by Lulu. Though I’m not quite sure whether bundling the Voynich Manuscript in with the Templars, the Masons, the Pyramids, Hitler, JFK, Christopher Columbus and the Bermuda Triangle is a brilliantly sensible idea: it sounds more like a kind of obsessive trainspotter take on conspiracies (why include one when you can include them all?)… but maybe they are all out to get us, so who knows? 346 pages, 6″ x 9″, $22.96.

However, you can buy the ebook version of it for a measly $4.66. Which is nice.

I just stumbled upon a January 2008 paper on translating nonsense texts in Translation Studies journal, written by Jean-Jacques Lecercle from the University of Nanterre, for the simple reason that it happened to discuss the (apparently nonsensical) Voynich Manuscript.

Plainly, Gordon Rugg’s hoax-theory fan-club (which I guess used to be Terence McKenna’s hoax-theory fan-club) has been all too successful in its drive for new members: but really, ’tis pity she’s no hoax.

Though I wasn’t quite intrigued enough by the article’s abstract to pay Informaworld the required £15 + VAT to download it, its mention of Callois’ ludus and paidia did get me thinking, particularly considering my background as a computer games programmer: Callois tries to categorise games along a continuum between fully structured games (ludus) and totally unstructured ones (paidia).

In the context of the Voynich, this has an additional resonance for me. The main VMs mailing list used to be a church broad enough to encompass both structured and unstructured contributions, broadly corresponding to people playing the Voynich research game as a ludus or as a paidia. But in recent years, it seems to me that this tolerance slowly disintegrated: as art historical and forensic evidence has started to encroach on the whole game, a number of the unstructured game-players have started to feel threatened. In fact, the idea that they might have to play by rules (even if those rules were laid down by the Voynich Manuscript’s own author/authors!) was so unappealing to them that they began to fight against the whole notion of evidence.

The whole hoax theory is in many ways symptomatic of this trend: roughly speaking, it says “every piece of VMs evidence might have been faked, and so the hoax hypothesis provides a complete explanation for every scenario that can be imagined… regardless of the evidence.” Such an acutely anti-evidential stance is perilously close to a kind of ‘creationist’-style take on the VMs, where the VMs sprung as a convincing, fully-rounded entity from the hoaxer’s imagination [like Athena from Zeus’ head?], in all its multi-layered forensic glory.

I simply don’t buy into this kind of armchair intellectual fantasy: there’s deception and misdirection at the heart of the VMs, for sure – but there’s also an overriding rationality behind it too, one that has structured it as a complex ludus to frustrate us (but which has become scrambled over time), not as a Rorschachian paidia, where every interpretation is equally true.

However unpopular it may sound, my judgment is that the anti-evidentialism on the main Voynich mailing list has now become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Just because we can glimpse the VMs’ rules does not mean that the game is over: instead, I think it signals that the game is moving from paidia to ludus… whether that suits you or not.

The best academic stories normally begin something like “I was chatting with [name-drop] in the bar/taxi/plane/train after the conference when…“: so I’ll do my best to shoehorn the following into that template…

After Day One of the Warwick/Warburg “Resources and Techniques” seminars in Warwick, I ended up standing in the aisle of a packed Virgin Pendolino train all the way to London, in the company of two fellow course participants (Zoe Willis and Charlotte Bolland) and Francois Quiviger, one of the course lecturers from the Warburg Institute. Francois knew little about the Voynich Manuscript, but was interested enough to take a look at the pictures in Jean-Claude Gawsewitch’s “Le Code Voynich“, the (how can I put it any other way?) French coffee-table edition of the VMs. (And yes, I was carrying a copy in my bag: as with all things Voynichian, you make your own luck.)

Francois very kindly suggested a number of things I might consider: for example, when looking at the pharma section, he immediately asked if the idea that the ornate “jars” might be optical instruments (such as unknown kinds of telescopes) had been considered (it has, of course). He also wondered about the apparent resemblance between some of the (apparently) fantastical glass objects in the VMs’ pharmacological section and the monstrance, a word so beautifully obscure I simply had to look up on my return…

From the dawn of Christianity onwards, many churches owned (or claimed to own) holy relics: bones or teeth of saints, ephemera linked with miracles, nails or fragments from the One True Cross, Christ’s baby teeth, even the Holy Foreskin (yes, really: there’s a fascinating 2006 article from Slate here about its modern history), and so on. (Coincidentally, Michael Cordy’s novel “The Messiah Code” which I mentioned here name-checks many of these still-existent objects of veneration.)

Quite reasonably, many historians now wonder whether many of these were simply medieval money-making scams for attracting pilgrims and parting them from their money: Internet hype, circa 1250. But the pilgrim had to be able to see the relics whose claimed powers they had travelled so far to have contact with (in some cases literally – the blind could allegedly be cured by rubbing the Holy Foreskin on their eyelids, it says here): and therein lay the problem.

Right from the start, boxes or caskets containing relics needed to both protect the relic and to help make it accessible to pilgrims, as well as allowing the relic to be carried around on particular saint’s days: and so these reliquaries evolved into gaudy carrying-cases, sometimes fashioned in part from transparent rock crystal, thus solving all the problems. Technically, the precise term for a partly-transparent reliquary is a a philatory, but this is such an incredibly rare term that it is unlikely to help you much in your Googling: indeed, philatory will get you nowhere.

A monstrance, then, is a very specific kind of philatory, not for an ancient relic but for a special kind of relic that is recreated all the time – the consecrated Eucharistic Host. In Catholicism, the wafer and wine are believed quite literally to turn into Christ’s Body and Blood (the whole process is “transsubstantiation”), a real mini-miracle. Churches needed some affordable way of displaying the Host, of demonstrating the Real Presence of Christ to the assembled faithful: but how?

To solve this problem, someone invented circa 1475 the “monstrance”: a portable golden object, typically with a central “luna”, a circular glass area (for the transformed wafer to slip into for display) not unlike a pair of oversized glass specimen slides (modern monstrances are sometimes categorized by the diameter of the luna). And these remain in use today, with only cosmetic changes from this basic design.

Etymologically, monstrance comes from the same Latin roots from which we get “demonstrate”, and so retains its meaning of ‘showing something’: another obscure word (though one probably even less useful for Scrabble players) for the same object is ostensorium, which is presumably somehow linked with ostentatious.

What I find interesting in all this is that, just beneath the surface history, I can catch a glimpse of the kind of properly Warburgian history Francois Quiviger was talking about when he looked at the pharma section. From 1450 onwards, the invention and manufacture of beautifully-clear cristallo glass in Murano transformed the whole way objects such as philatories and monstrances were conceived: by breaking the need for (what was ludicrously expensive) rock crystal, cristallo made visibility an affordable design feature.

Could it be, then, that what we are seeing in this part of the VMs is not a set of purely fantasy glass objects, but possibly a kind of mangled brochure for a range of designs for cristallo-based philatories or monstrances, in the period at the end of the Quattrocento when the former was somehow seguing into the latter? 1475 is the earliest date I’ve seen quoted for a monstrance, but I would be unsurprised if the actual date of origination were to be found to be a little closer to 1450.

I couldn’t claim (by any stretch of the imagination) to be an expert on early modern reliquaries, philatories and monstrances (and how many such experts are there in the world, anyway?): but it’s an intriguing suggestion, one on which I’d be interested to hear any comments…

The first one-day session of the Warburg/Warwick Early Modern Research Techniques course was yesterday: though it was pretty good, I think I’m breaking no great confidences if I say that this felt likely to be the, errrrrmmmm, least strongest of the three days… despite Warwick’s strong Renaissance department, everyone was just itching to get on to the Warburg text and image days. But as with most post-grad things, you learn just as much from the other students as from the lecturers: so Day One was no hardship.

It became quickly apparent that all the participants were both properly web-savvy (it’s nice to see people surfing at the speed of thought) and Excel-smart (for fun, I tried Access instead, but unfortunately it was just as clunky as I remembered), and had already drained all the loose juice from JSTOR, EEBO, and their low-hanging ilk. But still, everyone falls short of 100% coverage in these things, and so there were plenty of webby windfalls for us all to put into our baskets. Here are a few highlights I thought I’d share…

Richard Parker from the University of Warwick (who co-presented two of the sessions with the pleasantly dry Francois Quiviger from the Warburg Institute) has brought together a large number of art history web resources on the Warwick website here. Though Richard somewhat deprecatingly refers to his efforts as “pre-Web 2.0”, his general pages page is just about as good a high-level starting point for online art history web research as any I’ve seen – and within the subject pages, his images link page is a bit of a gem too (and within that, check out the iconography and emblems page). His personal favourite is the TASI advice page on finding and using online images: if you’re at all unsure about this kind of thing, it’s an excellent link.

Bibliographical searching was another key topic. Of late, I’ve managed to get my research done without having to resort to Inter-Library Loans: so while I was cool with WorldCat, COPAC and (my favourite, despite its uber-dull name) the M25 consortium, I hadn’t noticed the (frankly rather amazing) KVK creep up on us all… a simple way of searching a staggering number of world libraries without any significant danger of mouse-related RSI. Recommended!

Incidentally, I didn’t realise that this course runs every year: I wish I’d known about it 3/4 years ago. But my guess is that as, not so many years ago, the web and historians were only just starting to ‘get it on’, Day One would originally have been the most eye-opening for those attending. But we’re now all so wise to that stuff, it all seemed slightly, well, ‘rusty’, if not slightly antiquated.

Yet the world is changing blazingly fast: in a year’s time, I’d hope that Day One is based instead on such amazing new Programming Historian tools as Zotero (which I found through the Early Modern Notes blog). And it would be the most amazing day once more! 🙂

Why is it that so many people wonder whether Leonardo da Vinci created the Voynich Manuscript? Even well-informed, thoughtful people such as Edith Sherwood (whose Adwords ad frequently pops up if you happen to Google for “Voynich”) manage to succumb to this notion.

There’s only one little problem: the VMs’ pen-strokes predominantly go from top-left to bottom-right, clearly indicating that it was written by someone who was right-handed. (Or left-handed, writing from right-to-left with the pages upside-down: but that just seems a bit stupid). In terms of identifying the author, that’s about 10% of the population eliminated: but, sadly, this is the tranche containing our Florentine chum Leonardo.

It’s probably symptomatic of what I call “join-the-dots history”, where you start with a set of evocative pieces and then work out the minimum amount of evidence you need to appropriate / use / abuse to link them together in a way that suggests some kind of correlation. For example, if you started with the (fake) Priory of Sion, Leonardo da Vinci, and Opus Dei… errrrrm… no, that would never work…

Anyway, here’s the latest real news on Leonardo: apparently, the Mona Lisa was indeed a picture of Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, and was being painted in October 1503. We have a “Heidelberg library expert” called Armin Schlechter to thank for finding this: and thankful I am.

Another Voynich-inspired (I’m yet sure whether or not “Voynich-themed” might be putting it a bit strongly) novel to add to the ever-fattening Big Fat List. Australian writer Matt Rubinstein‘s novel was called “A Little Rain on Thursday” (the picture is from f75r) when it was published last June in Oz by Text Publishing: it appeared here last July (published by Quercus) under the title “Vellum“. Amazon Marketplace has copies for £1.98 + £2.75 UK p&p: I’ve ordered one & will post a review here ASAP. It doesn’t appear to have any evil Jesuit priests in it, which has to be A Very Good Thing Indeed.

What’s sort of appealing (well – to me, at least) is the way he casually slips the words “marginalia” and “forensic” into the cover blurb. However, this may well be a weakness, given that to keep him fed and watered in writerland, his book has to sell to a large number of non-Voynicheros, to whom such things are usually fairly alien (even if they do watch CSI).

Oh, and the stuff in the story about the manuscript decipherer being obsessive may also have alienated him from passing VMs-ologists. We’re not obsessive, I tell you: we count the number of stars on each section of each page for scientific reasons, damnit! Errrrrrrrrrm…

…maybe he’s got a point. Oh well… :-((((

How did I manage not to notice this conference before now? “Secrets and Knowledge: Medicine, Science and Commerce 1500-1800” runs from 15th-16th February 2008 at CRASSH at Cambridge University, featuring such stars as William Eamon (whose epic “Science and the Secrets of Nature” sits by my right shoulder) and Lauren Kassell (with whom I briefly corresponded about the Book of Dunstan back in 2001).

It sounds like a fascinating, fantastic mini-event, and I just can’t wait… even though I’ll probably be the only Voynichologist there. Does anyone else see the VMs as a mid-Quattrocento example of the “books of secrets” genre too? Apparently not… *sigh*

A quick digression on the title of Enrique Joven’s forthcoming Voynich book, “The Castle of the Stars” (originally published as El Castillo de las Estrellas): and it’s all tied up with Tycho Brahe

Once upon a time in 1572 (according to the article here), a supernova appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia (you know, the big W-shaped one). Watching this in Denmark, Brahe realised that this was not a near-Earth object, but was in fact as far away as all the other stars, at a time when it was generally thought that this was impossible. Revolutionary stuff, and the book he wrote on the subject dramatically launched Brahe’s career into orbit.

Frederick II was so desperate to make sure his brand new star astronomer did not leave Denmark that he gave Brahe the island of Hven, the huge financial backing to build Uraniborg (“the castle of Urania“, named after the Greek Muse who was the patron saint of astronomy) to house his instruments, and then an observatory called Stjerneborg (“the castle of the stars“)… from which (I guess) Enrique Joven took the name for his novel.

Brahe also used the grounds of Uraniborg to grow herbs for his “medicinal chemistry experiments” (according to Wikipedia): Voynichologically, this seems somehow right, doesn’t it?

Incidentally, there was a short story in French by Al Nath called “Le chateau des etoiles” from Ciel in 1986: this was about Tyco Brahe.

Alternatively, there’s a place in Teba in Andalucia called “El castillo de estrella” (it says here) that commemorates a battle fought in 1330, with a confused (and mythological-sounding) linked story about Robert the Bruce’s heart in a silver casket being taken to the Holy Land. Errrrm… you had to be there, I guess. But I think I’ll stick with the Brahe version, if that’s OK with you?

I’ll admit it: I spend so much time (and money) servicing my 100-a-year non-fiction book habit, it’s been a while since I’ve strayed into the world of fiction. I did read Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” and “Digital Fortress” (yuk), just in case there was anything I should flag in my book (I mentioned his “O Draconian Devil!” and “Oh, lame saint” anagrams in chapter 6). Actually, the last novel I read was Susanna Clarke’s epic “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell“.

But with the 2008 Voynichian novel tsunami fast approaching us all, I thought I’d warm up for Michael Cordy’s forthcoming VMs book by reading his first book, “The Messiah Code” (1997): this follows the generic blockbuster template, mixing together fat themes (religion, gene therapy, gene paranoia) with thin characters.

Unfortunately… though the writing is pacy and spare throughout, Cordy’s plotting inexperience shows through everywhere. The book ends up like an argument between two kids playing cliche Top Trumps – who would win, the genius Nobel laureate geneticist fighting for his child’s life, or the ruthless, conflicted, 2000-year old super-rich Templaresque secret society? The perky female black genius Nobel laureate computer scientist from the ‘hood, or the shape- and gender-shifting unfeeling uber-killer with a surprising childhood secret? You feel like asking: yeah, and would Mechagodzilla kick the Transformers’ hollow butts?

In the end, for all its page-turning readability “The Messiah Code” is a book about ciphers, for that is what all its characters are – nulls, blanks, voids, zeroes. But maybe that’s the whole point: perhaps all that blockbuster readers want is a satisfying mental knot to untangle on the beach, and aren’t really interested in much beyond that.

At least Michael Cordy did his research properly, so the “science bit” largely holds up: and for that I was grateful (though a “terrabyte” did sneak in somewhere, *sigh*). But I hope he’s come a long way in the ten years since…

The story of how an Englishman apparently invented the telescope in the mid-sixteenth century is not as well-known as perhaps it ought to be. Its outline was first proposed in 1991 by Colin Ronan, the then president of the British Astronomical Association (and so a credible source): a very readable set of articles (though sadly without matching illustrations) is here, from which I quote below.

Essentially, it boils down to this: that an English Renaissance surveyor and author called Leonard Digges (ca. 1520 – ca. 1559) constructed what was called at the time “perspective glasses” (the term ‘telescope’ did not appear until the 17th century), quite probably for surveying purposes. However, it seems likely that his son Thomas Digges pointed them to the heavens, several decades prior to Galileo.

From a Voynichological perspective, one of the nice features of the story is that one of our old friends features centrally: when Leonard Digges died, his 13-year old son Thomas was placed under the guardianship of none other than John Dee. Dee, in his preface to Billingsley’s 1570 translation of Euclid had this to say:

  • ‘He may wonderfully helpe him selfe, by Perspective glasses. In which (I trust) our posterity will prove more skillfull and expert, and to greater purposes, than in these days, can (almost) be credited to be possible.’

This, when taken with Thomas Digges’ own books and a 1583 report by William Bourne (“an expert in navigation and gunnery”), does all seem to comprise a ‘smoking gun’ proof that the two Digges in many significant ways predated Galileo by several decades. Which is not, of course, to diminish Galileo’s historical importance per se: but rather, to show that the history of inventions is rarely as simple and linear as one might think.

One last thing: in the Netherlands patent uproar over the first ‘official’ telescopes, “the son of Sacharias Jansen [a better Wikipedia page is here], another of the claimants, later stated that his father [Hans Jannsen, the probable inventor of the microscope in 1590] already had a telescope of Italian manufacture, dated 1590“. So the full story behind the invention of the telescope most likely remains obscure and tangled…