Ellie Velinska and the French connection

Ellie Velinska and Don of Tallahassee are the only persons who have spent time looking at possible connections between MS Beinecke 408 and fifteenth century France during the time I’ve been involved in this study.. at least, the only ones whose work I’ve seen.

Ellie’s focus, naturally enough (because everyone’s was) was a Latin European royal court, but she became fascinated by those magnificent manuscripts produced  for John, Duc de Berry (1340 – 15 June 1416).  I must admit that I paid her posts less attention than I might have done, because those manuscripts are so very-very Latin Christian, and stylistically distant, by a long way, from the imagery in MS Beinecke 408.

That was part of the reason for skimming her posts, the other being that I was then trying to discover historical links that might explain why the botanical and ‘pharma’ (-lading) sections should show such lack of Latin influence.

Ellie isn’t one of the blinkered theory-first types.  She has genuinely explored the manuscript as best she can, without forming hard-and-fast certainties before studying the evidence.  Her posts consider works from various Latin European traditions: French, German, Bohemian, Russian, Latvian and, of course, Latin as the universal language of western Christianity. I think her posts about France and the court of the Duc de Berry might begin from ‘The Voynich Manuscript: Trithemius and the Calendar of Duc de Berry’, published on March 11th., 2013, though there might be some in her earlier ‘Big Business’ blog site. I can’t find it at present.

More recently, on May 16th., 2015, Don of Talahassee wrote to the Voynich mailing list about his survey “mostly from Books of Hours calendars of the Fifteenth Century (and before)” saying that he had turned up on some astronomical instruments from Picardy, a number of similar forms for month-names as those seen on the additional inscriptions in the Voynich month-roundels.   You can read his results  here, where his name is given and his findings quoted verbatim in a response by  A.Sz. Szelp.

And that, I think, is about the lot.  Ellie Velinska’s latest posts have been looking more at the European herbal tradition (to which I cannot agree the VMS botanical imagery belongs), and in general she seems to have settled into the ethos of the “central European” idea.  Ellie was one of the researchers fortunate enough to be at the Folger Museum when its people commented on the manuscript, but – with typical modesty – made no observations of her own, reproducing Rene Zandbergen’s summary on her post of Thursday November 13th., 2014.  There is no reference to France in it.

The summary seems to indicate some interest, now, in Greek manuscripts though whether the interest arose from her, the Folger staff, or Zandbergen  is unclear.  There was no news in the summary, which said that the stitching may well be (though is not necessarily) original to the fifteenth century.  That is non-news, I think.

The ‘parchment’ (sic) is said to be less than perfectly equalised but that it “has been prepared with care and intensity”.  Not exactly a statement of practical use, but nice to know the makers tried hard.

The vellum is from calf skin (no surprises there).

A modern ‘ seller of parchments’ (I’m not sure if that means a stationer, parchminer or art supplier)  said he thought the cover was goat skin.  why not?

The manuscript is no palimpsest – I’m not sure who, if anyone, has ever suggested it could be, but if it were McCrone would have said so, years ago. So non-news, I think.

The ‘gold specks’ that were first noticed years ago by… ummm. .. Dana Scott(?) turn out to be a type of gum/resin.  (That is a define bit of information, and one that certainly is useful, but it would have been better to know if it were, say, Cretan gum or even just whether it were a vegetable or animal gum).

The rest of the summary is full of the handy news-bites noises helpful to journalists, except that somebody at the Folger seems to have made a point of saying that  “the most unique part of the MS may be the fact that it is a parchment(sic) codex with fold-out leaves”.

I smiled to read that in Rene’s summary, because I recall distinctly when I first said exactly the same, emphasising just how unusual such fold-outs are in any type of European manuscript (we’re talking about things said in 2011, not my recent series), I seem to recall that Rene asserted, specifically and fairly emphatically, that there were lots of fold-outs in European manuscripts, and that in referring to this as evidence that the Vms was not “characteristically central European Latin’ in any way, I was merely “nit-picking”.

Of course, Rene might also have remembered, as I later discovered, that Barbara Shailor had said something of the same in her little book about medieval manuscripts. ( I’ve not held a hard-copy in my hands, of course, so I can’t guarantee that is so).

But you’d think, at least, that Rene might have said “… as Diane O’Donovan has been emphasising and demonstrating.”

Fact is that  reference to personal names is something  Zandbergen approaches with much careful thought and judicious attitude: none of the expert opinions given at the Folger carry attributions either, so it’s not a case of selective omission.

But what with Zandbergen’s protective attitude to his sources, and Ellie’s faithful transcription sans commentary, one is left having no idea who actually deserves credit for this bit:

“The trend of pseudo-scripts in paintings and statues of this time appears relevant” – though it’s so vague and non-committal that it’s just another non-fact, really.

I would like to know who it was who told Rene at the Folger that,  “The MS overall composition seems to be modeled after the Greek tradition of a Iatrosophion”.

Not that it means very much either. The lovely Greek word just means a personal handbook and reference book made for a herbalist/physician.  You don’t have to be Greek to have one… (you can finish that line).

I’ve illustrated plenty of privately made handbooks, including a couple of doctors’, and of course Panofsky later said the book might be a “quack” writing for his son, but he meant a Jewish physician, and he was thinking of a particular work, by a particular author.

The thing is, why should someone from the Folger Museum think about a Greek doctor’s book?  … all is silence…

I doubt that anyone working in the Folger would know that I’ve been talking about the influence of Greek in formation of the Voynich astronomical imagery, and how it explains the style of the month-roundels’ tiers of “ladies”.  Nor would they necessarily know that the lingua franca of trade, and of Mediterranean Jews until about the tenth century, was Greek.  Readers of my posts would know, but that’s a different matter.

Southern Spain, as I’ve said, retained Byzantine governance until the Arab conquests.  Part of southern Italy had an ‘ancient Greek’ dialect as late as Ficino’s time (at least according to him). And, as I’ve explained since then (after the Folger exhibition) the dress and hat on the Voynich archer appear to derive from the type attributed to the eastern Mediterranean islands, and in the case of our archer probably relate to the successive influence of Genoese, Venetian and Catalan.

I do wish Ellie had written more about the French angle, though.   (another of her French examples in her  post of Sept. 29th 2014).