Starting from Scratch #7e – “Seeking the Voynich hand” continued 4

By beginning from the beginning, first considering the physical object and then the views of well-qualified people less influenced by Wilfrid Voynich’s romantic tale, we have found that the evidence takes us in quite a different direction from that story which Wilfrid propagated so successfully, which set parameters for Voynich studies throughout the following century,  yet which led to negligible advances in our understanding of the manuscript.  One need only compare what is certainly known by 1931 with what is today accepted as certain in order to see how few new items have been added to the list.

But now, where Wilfrid had asserted so confidently that the work was  the single composition of  a single author, the manuscript itself has – so far – suggested that it is a compilation.

Where he asserted an English provenance – something still not beyond possibility – the manuscript’s presentation and hand have turned us instead towards the south. Had Panofsky’s opinion given Anne Nills in 1931 been more widely known before 1980, or paid closer attention before now, the study might have advanced more effectively; he had given it a southern provenance from his first appraisal.

Wilfrid had presumed, as would most of those later influenced by his narrative, that the work was entirely the product of Europe’s Latin and Christian – even monastic – culture.  We, by considering the manuscript’s page – its presentation and layout*  – have come to see that its content may well have been gained from southern Jewish  (i.e. Spanish/Provençal Sephardic) precedents, though some possibility exists of input from ‘provincial Greek’. In reaching this point of view, we have referred to the works of both earlier and of more recent palaeographers and codicologists, including Beit Arié.

* and the way text and image are assigned their position, though this issue isn’t treated yet.

Judah/Leon Mosconi has provided an historical example demonstrating that a southern Jewish provenance is not incompatible with writing in the style of a  ‘provincial Greek’, during the time of the Avignon papacy – the time when Cresques’ Atlas was made and when Mosconi lived in Majorca. The relevance of the Avignon’s papal period  has been discussed in posts to this blog, and will be re-introduced later in the second series of talks.

fol 86v minimap western tower lgr

Identification of this detail on folio 86v as the tower of Philip le Bel and its  courtyard in Avignon is an original one, exclusively a result of the present author’s research.

At present, then, it appears that although our manuscript may prove an artefact owing its manufacture to the Veneto during the 1430s or so, it is unlikely that the content included in it is the work of a single auteur, or wholly a product of Latin culture.

On the contrary: references in Georg Barsch’s letter to Kircher, and the life of Leon Mosconi as conforming to Baresch’s hypothetical collector of the Voynich material, have brought us to concentrate now on the maritime routes between Egypt, Spain and the Balearics during the fourteenth century.

This is now  about content; the form and manufacture of our manuscript remain credited, at present, to the region about Venice a century later.

With regard to which.  There would be published in Venice in 1478 a new translation of the long geographic poem by Dionysius Periegetes, otherwise known as Dionysius of Alexandria. (B.L. Harley MS 5577).  This is another manuscript on which Marcus Musurus’ provincial Greek hand appears.  The published copy is the Latin translation by  Antonius Beccaria, entitled De situ orbis, and the press was that of Franciscus Renner de Heilbronn. It is an edition with a typeface so beautiful (and perfectly ‘humanist’) that I include a copy of one page, just for the pleasure. This photograph from a copy recently offered at auction.  (Christie’s sale 7590, Lot 167).  MS Harley 5577 can be seen in an online reader here. geog Dionysius Periegetes 1478 print the ‘wiki’ article says Musurus’ hand is believed the model for Aldus’ Greek type.[1]

One might argue that the Latin ‘humanist’ hand’s increasing evenness and simplicity is a reciprocal effect from the form of Italian print fonts – but the medium of type itself, and the influence of other scripts such as Greek, Hebrew and Arabic had their effect, especially the Greek and in regions directly adjacent to the Mediterranean.

But Panofsky did think the manuscript Jewish, so it is necessary to consider whether the hand might be the northern, Ashkenazic, style.

The region surrounding Venice became highly cosmopolitan during the short period between 1394 when the Jews of France were denied residence in their native land by their king (an expulsion which did not apply in every city), and 1492 when the Spaniards’ actions were as they were. The Turks were so moved by the plight of the Spanish Jews that the Turkish navy was sent to rescue as many as they could. A large number settled in Crete, and others in the Morea.

But earlier, to the region around Venice came the owners of the North French Jewish Miscellany,  from France, via Coburg, to reach Mestre – now a suburb of Venice – by 1479. A little later the manuscript was in Venice itself, then in Padua by 1480 and by 1481 had reached Iesi near Ancona – all on the Adriatic side of the peninsula.

North French Miscellany BL Additional 11639 f. 354v

BL Additional MS 11639 f. 354v ‘The North French Jewish Miscellany’

The script of the North French Jewish Miscellany (BL Additional MS 11639) is Ashkenazic. (Ashkenazic is defined as relating to regions now part of Northern France or Germany).

North French Jewish Miscellany Bread of Affliction Additional 11639 f 205

detail from f.205, BL Additional 11639 North French Jewish Miscellany.

Malachi Beit-Arié’s detailed examination of its pages, their preparation and assembly, confirmed an earlier conclusion offered by  Yael Zirlin, that the initial stages of illumination were carried out by artists in St Omer and subsequent illustrations by the King’s own artists in ateliers in Paris. (information from the page of the facsimile edition, online.)

In the same year that  this Miscellany came to Mestre,  a family of the region commissioned (possibly in Ferrara) another breathtaking example of the same genre, resulting in a manuscript now known as the Rothschild Miscellany (1479-c.1481?).

Like the layout of BL Additional 11639, The Rothschild Miscellany refers to the style of Jewish religious texts provided with scholia and Rabbinic commentary, but in both cases the imagery was inserted separately by specialists in the Latin way, and the scaffolding is also recognisably of the European Latin type, both being far distant from those in MS Beinecke 408.

(for more information on the Rothschild Miscellany’s history see here)

The detail below is from the Rothschild Miscellany. As you see, its text in this paragraph is provided with vowels and other diacritics, and while one might imagine that a native writer of Greek (for example) might form rounder letters and omit diacritics,  it is fairly obvious that Panofsky’s evaluation is the most likely correct.

Of  the hands we have considered from the Mediterranean, including  Latin hands, it is surely the movement and posture of the southern, Sephardic  cursive which comes closest to what we find in MS Beinecke 408,  Musurus’  ‘provincial’ Greek cursive hand from Cyprus coming next in order.

script from Rothschild Miscellany

detail from the Rothschild Miscellany.

We should not imagine that people writing in a given hand stayed always within their ‘national’ borders, even in the Mediterranean. We have already seen a Cretan Greek writing in his provincial style in Venice, and a ‘Bulgarian’ Jewish physician known as “Leo the Greek” serving as chief physician to the ruler of Majorca, after having studied in Egypt and residing close to the  Jewish chart-masters in Mallorca and Majorca – those whose maritime charts and tables  were sought by a French king ~ among many others.

compass rose Atlas Catala 1375small

detail from world map on the Majorcan “Atlas Catala” by Cresques Abraham .1375. The compass ‘Rose’ is a convention first found in Egypt, but of which this is the first example known in the western region.


for the range of variation in Sephardic scripts, see illustrations in Saul I. Aranov, Descriptive Catalogue of the Bension Collection of Sephardic Manuscripts.


[apologies if this post rambles a bit. Written after a very long day.]


  1. In case anyone else wonders, as an email correspondent does, whether “a long day” is an Australian euphemism equivalent to the English “long lunch” – no, it means a working day averaging 20+ hours over a couple of weeks, with no time on most days for any lunch and a minimum of 8+ coffees become the average, and still aren’t enough. That’s a “long day”.


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