Wednesday 12 April 2017

The Voynich manuscript: medieval secrets left in plain sight

It is one of the great mysteries of the medieval world. A beautifully illustrated manuscript that has survived over five centuries of being passed from owner to owner, before finally ending up in one of the greatest university libraries in the world. It has survived wars, famines and natural disasters. It has at times been locked away from public view, and at other times pored over by the world's leading scholars. It has been the focus for academic debate, and heated controversy. It is, quite probably, one of the most studied medieval manuscripts in existence. It is undoubtedly one of the most frustrating. For even after almost a century of intense scrutiny, by many of the world's leading medievalists, nobody has yet been able to actually decipher the text. It is, quite simply, unreadable.

Today this book is usually known to academics by its rather clinical and wholly unremarkable library identification number - Beinecke MS 408. However, to the wider world it is known simply as the 'Voynich Manuscript', after the late nineteenth century eastern European collector, bibliophile and book dealer Wilfrid M. Voynich; the individual first credited with identifying the strange volume.

The manuscript itself is made up of 234 pages of high quality vellum, split into six very distinct sections. The first section is made up of 130 illustrations of plants, often referred to as being similar to a medicinal herbal manual. The strange looking plants are shown with their roots, leaves and flowers, but although a few vaguely resemble recognisable varieties, none have ever been positively identified. These crudely executed images are surrounded by sections of text in an unknown and unidentifiable language. The second section of the book comprises of a small collection of unusual fold-out pages showing circular diagrams that have been interpreted as astrological charts. The third section is perhaps more unusual still, being made up of quite poorly executed illustrations showing individuals bathing naked in a variety of ponds and pools, again accompanied by the mysterious and unreadable script. The fourth section contains further fold-out astrological charts, whilst the fifth section returns to the theme of the strangely unidentifiable plants. The final section contains no illustrations whatsoever, consisting of twenty-three closely written pages of the strange unreadable text. There is, quite simply, no other surviving medieval manuscript quite like it.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript LibraryYale University

Although the manuscript is today clearly associated with W. M. Voynich, it has quite unusually been possible to trace its ownership back several centuries prior to his acquisition of the piece. It has been established that the book was once amongst the collection of the seventeenth century Italian Jesuit thinker, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher had in turn acquired the book from Johannes Marcus Marci, a physician from Prague, who had claimed that the whole manuscript was a 'lost' work of the English Alchemist Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292?). Marci had also stated, according to a letter dated 1665 that Voynich had discovered tucked between the pages of the book, that the work had once been purchased for the library of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), although Marci himself is believed to have bought the work from the alchemist Georgius Barschius, who we know was in possession of the manuscript in the 1630s.

The association between the manuscript and Rudolf II was an obvious one for Kircher to make, particularly if he was trying to sell the book and capitalise upon its strangeness. Rudolph II's interest in the occult, alchemy and the sciences were well known, leading to his court becoming the focus for numerous individuals involved in what might today be considered 'fringe' research, as well as more traditional forms of investigation. Alongside leading astronomers and mathematicians, such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, individuals such as Dr John Dee were drawn to  Prague to undertake their own research. Dee was resident at the court for some years, attempting via his 'conversations with angels' to establish the earliest language of creation, that would have been used by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Rudolph was a great patron on the arts and sciences, but was himself obsessed with the art of alchemy, and the search for the philosopher's stone; an obsession that led to him subsequently being dubbed the 'Alchemist Prince'.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript LibraryYale University

If Kircher was attempting to sell the book as an ancient magical treatise then the court of Rudolf II would have be the most perfect of provenances. However, Kircher's attempt to link the Voynich manuscript with the court of Rudolf II might not have been entirely self-serving and spurious at it might at first seem. Although invisible today unless under ultra-violet light, a signature on the flyleaf has been identified as that of Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenee - official pharmacist at the court of the Emperor Rudolf.

To be able to trace the ownership of a single manuscript from the early seventeenth century to the present day is unusual enough, but to be able to trace such a manuscript through multiple owners and across several continents, is nothing short of a bibliographic miracle. However, by the time we first come across the work in the early seventeenth century the manuscript was already ancient. If this strange book was ever at the court of the strange emperor, then it was already well over a century and a half old. Recent examination of the manuscript involved highly accurate radiocarbon dating of fragments of the vellum itself, which revealed that the materials used to create the book all dated to around the third decade of the fifteenth century - incidentally ruling out the possibility that the whole was a modern forgery, an accusation that has been leveled at it more than once.

Today the manuscript resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, where it has become one of the most viewed of all the treasures within one of THE great treasure houses of medieval manuscripts. The mystery surrounding the work, and its recent exposure to public scrutiny, has meant that the lately digitised version of the book is now actually responsible for over fifty percent of all the on-line views of the whole library collection. It is even said that the author Umberto Eco, when lecturing at Yale and offered the opportunity to view any of its medieval riches, asked only to see this one manuscript. It has, in short, become legend.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript LibraryYale University

It has also become the focus for intense academic debate, and perhaps more sadly, the centrepiece in numerous discussions concerning the 'lost' mysteries of the Middle Ages, ancient hidden 'secrets', and the 'truth' behind the manuscript. Since as far back as the seventeenth century some of the owners of the book have been convinced that the unintelligible text it contains is actually a devious code designed to disguise its true nature. Kircher himself attempted to recruit individuals to decipher the work, and centuries later even Voynich was convinced that the text was a cipher that could be broken. What lay concealed by the coded pages was anyone's guess - but it was certainly deemed to be both important and worth the effort of decryption. A hidden manuscript of lost medieval science was amongst the favourite suggestions, with Dr Dee's ancient language of the angels also a consideration. Whatever it was, the efforts made to conceal its true nature must, it was thought, reflect the value of the information it contained.

With the donation of the manuscript to Yale university library interest in the secrets apparently lodged within the pages of the book actually increased exponentially. Many of the world's finest minds, cryptographers and code-breakers, have set themselves the challenge of mastering its secrets. More recently still, supercomputers and code-breaking algorithms have been employed to attempt to decipher the mysterious text. All to no avail. A few have claimed success, but all such claims have fallen apart upon closer examination. Frustration has indeed become the key word associated with any studies into the manuscripts origins and function. If it isn't a code to be broken, then academia isn't quite sure what it actually is? The scientific analysis has generally ruled out the concept of a modern forgery, leaving scholars to grasp at terms such as 'hoax' and 'fantasy'. Indeed, one of the most popular modern approaches to the work is that it was created as an elaborate medieval hoax. A purely specious work that never really had any true meaning or function. As Eamon Duffy has suggested, a fraud designed by a swindler whose 'derisive laughter peals down the centuries'. A unique practical joke from the past. (For a fuller account of the ownership of the manuscript, and modern attempts at decryption, see Eamon Duffy's recent article in The New York Review of Bookshere)

With such a unique manuscript, and with no known parallels, what other interpretations are there? Excepting of course that there are parallels, and the manuscript is unique only in the fact that it is a book. A complete work. A closer examination of the world from which this mysterious work originated - the world of medieval magic - shows us that the enigma that is the Voylich manuscript actually isn't that enigmatic. It really isn't that strange. Indeed, when looked at in the context of late medieval belief and the physical manifestations of those beliefs, the work takes on a whole new meaning. The arcane becomes the mundane.

Examples of strange and unreadable text are to be found in several areas of late medieval and early modern studies, and in almost all cases are linked to the practice of what might be termed 'folk magic'. The contemporary attitudes to such activities were ambiguous to say the least, with the church officially condemning acts of what it termed 'witchcraft' on numerous occasions, whilst documentary records indicate that the populace as a whole took a far more ambivalent attitude. Magic that caused harm was to be protected against and condemned out of hand. However, magic and charms that came to peoples aid, cured illness and recovered stolen property were seen as just another aspect of everyday life. The magic of the 'wise woman' and 'cunning man' was, after all, simply a logical extension of the 'magical' protections offered by the Church. Indeed, in the relatively rare cases where the use of such low level charms and folk practices find themselves scrutinised in the law courts, a high percentage of those carrying out such activities are shown to be parish priests and those in religious orders.

Take for example the case of William Stapleton, monk of St Benets Abbey in Norfolk. In 1528 Stapleton took leave of his religious vocation, following a dispute with his Prior over his inability to get out of bed to attend religious services on time. Instead Stapleton decided to carve out a new career searching for ancient buried treasure, aided by magic books that had come into his possession, and the demons that he intended to summon using the secret arts detailed in the books. The magical books had come to Stapleton from their original owner, the vicar of Watton, and during his relatively short, and spectacularly unsuccessful, career as a treasure hunter he had interactions with a large number of other priests all involved in similar activities. The parson of Lesingham, we are told, had bound a spirit called Andrew Malchus into another magic book that Stapleton was keen to acquire.

The line between officially sanctioned magical acts of the church, and those of 'superstitions' was a fine one; and one that many a priest found it simply too easy to unwittingly cross. It was therefore totally acceptable to carry the consecrated Host around the parish to ward off thunderstorms, but apparently crossed the line if you scattered the Host across the village fields to drive off evil and ensure fertility. In 1564 the Reverend John Betson was ordered to hand over to the Church authorities certain magical books that were in his possession, and that he had been accused of using to help his parishioners recover stolen goods. And in one single year, 1586, no less than three individual Norfolk vicars found themselves charged with acts of 'conjuring', and in 1606 the Royal College of Physicians was forced to act against the Reverend John Bell for supposedly supplying 'cures' to his congregation in the form of written charms.

The use of written charms, by all levels of medieval and early modern society, was extensive and commonplace. Often written on small scraps of parchment these charms could take many forms and have many functions. In many cases they were designed to effect a cure, or protect from evil influences, and were as applicable to livestock as they were human beings. Some were designed to be worn, or secreted in clothing, whilst others were to be hidden away within structures such as houses, barns or stables. Their production most usually fell to the local wise woman or cunning man, and they could be purchased for a relatively modest fee, with particular individuals known to have specialised in charms for particular ailments and conditions.
Norfolk Record Office

The charms themselves often took the form of a mixture of symbols and text, such as the seventeenth century example designed to protect from witchcraft, and now preserved in the Norfolk record office. However, in many cases both the text and the symbols could be ambiguous. Many of the post-reformation written charms contained elements of medieval Latin, sometimes from orthodox prayers or the psalms, much of which had become corrupted by time and, in some cases, he obvious copying of ancient and faded originals. However, whilst many of the written charms follow clearly established forms and patterns, just as clearly many of the charms also contained text that had never made any sense, and was never meant to be intelligible. It was quite simply 'mumbo-jumbo' - nonsense phrases and sentences that were designed to look mysterious and magical to the intended audience, but which had no actual meaning at all.

And alongside the undecipherable and unintelligible texts, these written charms often contain symbols, amulets and imagery. In some cases the symbols are recognisable astrological or astronomical characters, carefully created or copied down from better known manuscripts. Complex astrological charts, set within compass drawn circles representing the celestial spheres. However, many of the amulets and sigils are from less traceable sources, and a large number of them appear simply to have been invented for the purpose. It was recognised that traditional ritual magic involved the use of outlandish sigils, so strange sigils there must be - whatever their source. This practice appears to have extended beyond the simple written charms into a number of well studied manuscripts on magical practices. Whilst many of the motifs, seals and amulets set down in Thomas Agrippa's early sixteenth century 'Three Books of Occult Philosophy' clearly have logical and classic antecedents, many other works include far greater flexibility when it comes to the origins of the material they included. The Tudor necromancers manual attributed to Paul Foreman (Cambs. Add. Mss. 3544) contains numerous seals, sigils and bizarre motifs that have no obvious provenance. And whilst many of them contain overtly religious imagery, such as the symbol of the trinity or the Holy Monogram, just as many of them appear to have devised by, or contain significant elements, that came from the author's own imagination.

Norwich cathedral graffiti curse
And such nonsense text and invented symbols aren't even solely confined to parchment charms and paper books, being also discovered in large numbers amongst the medieval and Tudor graffiti inscriptions in English places of worship. Such an association between aspects of ritual magic and church buildings can hardly be considered surprising, given the role priests and clerics appear to have played in popularising the activity, and the perceived enhancement of the power of any charm by it being associated with a spiritually significant site. Whilst some of these inscriptions follow the classical tradition, such as the graffiti 'curses' located in Norwich cathedral, or the 'magic square' on the walls of Alphamstone church in Essex, other are far more informal in nature. Strange pseudo astronomical talisman litter the walls at churches such as Worlington in Suffolk, unintelligible text snakes across the stones at Lidgate church in Suffolk, accompanied by images of devils and demons.
Worlington church graffiti, Suffolk

These are the everyday tools of the trade for the medieval and Tudor 'conjurer'. The overtly theatrical props of the wise woman and cunning man. Texts, symbols and documents that are designed to project an air of obscurity; a semblance of mystery and ambiguity. Their function was to hide the very greatest secret of all; the secret being that they had no meaning whatsoever - beyond being part of an elaborate set-dressing for the charlatan.

So perhaps that then is the answer? The indecipherable text of the Voynich manuscript was designed to serve one purpose, and one purpose alone - and that was to be indecipherable. There is no hidden message. There is no secret code. It was devised as a manuscript that was never meant to be read. The strange other-worldly text and ambiguous imagery were created to project a sense of mystery; a physical rendering of the arcane. The mysterious message of the manuscript is a simple one, and one that its audience throughout the centuries have never failed to grasp. Here, on these pages of creamy vellum, lies true mystery. No hoax - no fraud - and it does exactly what it was always envisaged as doing. It creates an air of the ineffable, an illusion of the unknowable. You, the audience, are not meant to understand this book. For understanding and interpretation you must look to the individual who possesses this work. Only they have the key to its secrets, and with it the secrets of the universe, which - undoubtedly for a price - they might share.

Was this manuscript then, like the nonsense text of many medieval and early modern written charms, and the inscriptions on countless church walls, simply an elaborate prop for the cunning man and public magician? A book of mystery and wonder, a blend of indecipherable text and astrological symbols, designed to gull even the most wary? Well, if that is the case, then it was certainly a most expensive prop. A valuable commercial tool for the mountebank of medieval mysteries. It is admittedly no great work of fine art, and yet its production cannot have been cheap. The quality of materials used is high, as is quantity of vellum used in its production, and it would have taken hundreds of hours to complete. It most certainly isn't the cut-price disposable written charm, scribbled upon a scrap of re-used parchment, but a major project undertaken by a single individual. Its creation must have been regarded as either a long-term investment, or aimed at a specific purpose. An initial purpose that we might never know.

Its connection with the court of Rudolf II, and his pharmacist's name that was once visible on the flyleaf, certainly support its links to the 'court of magic', but these links were only forged a century or so after the manuscript was actually created. The mysterious original maker of the book would have undoubtedly already been long dead. Returned to the dust from which the manuscript is even today so arduously protected in Yale University library. Indeed, perhaps the very reason the book eventually found itself at the court of the magic obsessed Emperor was that it was already being viewed as an object of mystery? A puzzle to be solved? A container that held the secrets of a bygone age?

And who then was this creator of one of the most elaborate magical and mysterious showman's props of the later Middle Ages? What can we say about he, or even she? In truth, very little. They were wealthy enough to have created the volume, and they were most certainly well versed in the writing arts and manuscripts, which suggests a relatively advanced level of education. They were also well enough acquainted with other 'magical' texts and herbals to have the knowledge to create their own pseudo version. However, beyond that the manuscript itself holds few clues, and it's early history prior to the seventeenth century is largely unknown. Without the discovery of parallel manuscripts, or elements of manuscripts,  their identity is unlikely to ever be firmly established. It would appear that the real mystery of the Voynich manuscript may remain forever unsolved.

(Further information and images from the Voynich Manuscript can be viewed on the Yale University website - here)

No comments:

Post a Comment