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…

To mark the four hundredth anniversary next year of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope in 1609, the IAU has designated 2009 “The International Year of Astronomy” (IYA2009): which is likely to be the trigger for a glut of telescope history-themed books (probably no bad thing, in my opinion). But what happened before 1609?

I recently mentioned here “the lost 150 years”, that awkward pause between the widespread availability of both convex and concave lenses (circa 1450) and the appearance of microscopes (circa 1590) and telescopes (circa 1600). Such compound optical devices could have been invented by anyone during that period, and the best-documented pre-1600 telescopic claim so far seems to be from Thomas Digges (John Gribbin discusses this in one of his books). But could yet other inventors (such as possibly the author of the Voynich Manuscript) have pre-dated Digges, Janssen and co?

There were plenty of alchemical-style claims to that effect, most notably from H. C. Agrippa, who wrote in his “Occult Philosophy” that “And I knew how to make by them wonderful things, in which any one might see whatsoever he pleased at a long distance” (Book II, Chapter 23) . However, there was (in this case) apparently nothing of real substance behind his bluster.

All the same, I asked on the HASTRO-L mailing list if there were any up-to-the-minute books on this far-too-quiet period, and was delighted to learn (via Peter Abrahams) of a book that is just coming out from Harvard University Press: “Galileo’s Glassworks, The Telescope and the Mirror” (2008), by Eileen Reeves, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, who specialises in the study of early modern scientific literature. Though the publisher’s blurb seems to make her book sound over-focused on the minutiae of Galileo’s rhetoric, I’m assured that its first half does actually take in the wider pre-1609 field of view (which is precisely what I was most interested in).

The release date for Glassworks is either January 2008 or 28th February 2008 (depending on who you ask): there are already some copies for sale in the US, but it’s only pre-ordering in the UK at the moment. I’ll review it here when my copy arrives (counting the days)…

From the apparent tsunami of Voynich fiction about to crash down on our literary shores over the next year, it might seem that the VMs had never previously appeared in a novel. Yet this is not exactly true…

For example, “Indiana Jones and the Philosopher’s Stone” (Max McCoy, Bantam Books, 1995) is based entirely around the Voynich Manuscript: set in March 1933, a mad scholar called Sarducci has stolen the VMs (which is actually a map), and so Indy chases him through Mussolini’s fascist Italy all the way to an amazing alchemical crypt in the desert… From what I’ve read of this book, it actually seems to be a pleasantly pulpy read, very much in tune with the actual VMs, and with a refreshing lack of power-mad Jesuit priests. However, I should warn you that it will be re-released on 29th April 2008, presumably to try to ride the whole 2008 Voy-niche publishing wave. *sigh*

Another pair of VMs-themed books came to my attention via the Bellairsia blog, which is devoted to books by the writer John Anthony Bellairs. His most famous novel was “The Face in the Frost” (1969), a fantasy novel in which Prospero and Roger Bacon fight against a mysterious grimoire that sounds not at all dissimilar to the VMs. After Bellairs’ death in 1991, his estate commissioned author Brad Strickland to complete and continue Bellairs’ various series: and it is in one of these that protagonist Johnny Dixon faces “The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost” (1999), which features the VMs in a starring role.

Connections between J.R.R.Tolkien and the VMs have been suggested in the past. According to Voynich mailing list member Anthony, Tolkien did indeed own a copy of at least one page of the VMs, which may have played a small part in influencing his choice of the fantasy scripts in his books. As I recall, there were a number of people in Tolkien’s Oxford circle that had an interest in early modern scientific manuscripts, so this does seem a perfectly sensible idea.

Many people have also wondered about the relationship between H.P.Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and the Voynich Manuscript: Colin Wilson based a short story called “The Return of the Lloigor” around this, and returned to the theme at the end of his novel “The Philosopher’s Stone”.

All the same, this modest pile of Voynich fiction looks set to triple in height this year… interesting times!


Here’s a nice piece of historical cryptography I hope you’ll appreciate: a piece of “pigpen ciphertext” engraved on a 1792 New York gravestone, on Flickr. But before you click anywhere, try and decode it for yourself from the transcription I’ve put above!

Hint: the single-dot box appears four times, and is (just as you’d expect) a vowel. 🙂

If you want to know more, the article mentioned on the page was from the Meyer Berger column on page 24 of the New York Times, January 2nd 1957, and is in the paper’s online archive: they charge non-subscribers $3.95 for a PDF, if you happen to be reaaaaaaally interested. But maybe this is a sensible place to stop…