Image without text – in the real world. Part 1-Theory

In a recent post, Nick Pelling wrote,

Whether we like it or not, history as practised nowadays is a tower built upon textuality, upon the implicit evidentiality striped within and through texts. Even archaeology .. and Art History rely heavily on texts for their reconstructions.

Pelling seems to be saying, thoughout that post, that the key to the Voynich manuscript’s content will be found by first creating a textual ‘history’  – yet one so detached from verifiable information that it will exist independent of the internal evidence offered by the primary source itself. Seriously? Surely not.

A majority of artefacts requiring provenance arrive without any creative ‘history’. They don’t come with manuals or neat descriptions.  But they are daily and quite routinely  .. I’ll emphasise that – routinely – accorded correct provenance.  Why hasn’t this happened with the content of the Voynich manuscript? Well, not least because it simply hadn’t occurred to anyone to consider that the date of the manuscript’s manufacture might not be the date for first composition of the content. From 1912 until about 2011, when I made that obvious point, the field had been hypnotised by an effort to ‘name the author’.. Jorge Stolfi being perhaps the sole exception. And believe me, in 2011 the idea of the manuscript as a compilation of older matter, by persons unknown, was not at all well received. I had to explain the word ‘florilegium’ for a start. Luckily a couple of others liked the sound of the word and these days it’s so common to suppose the manuscript a compilation that some Voynicheros will think one has a hell of a cheek in trying to taking the blame!.

To provenance an object, or imagery and ornament, it is enough if the appraiser can recognise the materials and the forms employed. No-one greets the sight of a sherd or drawing by throwing up their hands in existential despair that the thing doesn’t come with attached explanatory text.  Nor do appraisers generally resort to ignoring the artefact in favour of creating some fictional narrative deemed an ‘intellectual history’.

I’d make the point clear that even without scientific analysis of the materials, form and ornament/imagery can be enough to rightly assign an object to its correct time, place and (thus) cultural origin. It depends – quite simply – on the would-be provenancer’s having a suitably broad knowledge. You have to know your stuff.

And if you don’t – it’s not the object’s fault that you feel only a blank incomprehension.


There’s something about the  generation of Voynicheros which gave us Zandbergen and Pelling: they have the idea that one should first creates a fictional tale – as ‘hypothesis’ –  then set about hunting whatever might be (however fancifully) deemed evidence in support. This style of manufacturing history pays remarkably little attention to the object or its content.

Pelling actually asserts that:

Alternative, explicitly visual approaches to history have lost the battle to control the locus of meaning. The mid-twentieth century Warburg/Saxl/Panofsky dream that highly evolved iconography/iconology might be able to surgically extract the inner semantic life of symbols from their drab syntatical carapaces now seems hopelessly over-optimistic, fit only for the Hollywood cartoons of Dan Brown novels. Sorry, but Text won.

Fine-sounding polemic, but completely airs-above-the ground.

Irwin Panofsky was not a symbolist, nor one of those mindless mis-users of Frazer’s anthropological anthology, ‘The Golden Bough’ (yes, Campbell and de Santillana, I’m looking at you). Panofsky read – he read deeply, widely and intelligently in several languages, including those relevant to his particular studies of medieval European Christian art and art of the Renaissance (how many Voyncheros today even read Latin?).

Panofsky’s approach to pictures was always and invariably informed by that deep appreciation of texts.  Naturally enough – because what is expressed through an image is a product of a specific environment which permits a common visual dialogue between the maker of images and his intended readers.  I use the word ‘readers’ deliberately, for people did not just  ‘eyeball’ a picture and come up with a meaningless list of components: cow, bucket, stool, woman. They ‘read’ the image much as one reads a series of words – forming the ‘sentence’:  here is a woman who is milking a cow.

The almost intractable problem in attitudes that have developed towards the content in Beinecke MS 408 is not least a result of the fact that between 1912 and about 2010 (with the possible exception of Stolfi) everyone took as their first assumption that the manuscript’s content was the original invention of some imagined ‘author’ – imagined as a European Christian, and usually male.  This fantasy-creature was moulded in any way needed to excuse inability to understand the manuscript’s imagery, which bears very little connection to Latin European culture and practice. The great bulk just ‘doesn’t make sense’ when the only way in which the viewer knows how to read imagery is by derivation from the classical and medieval languages of Europe or, less often, of Islam.

Even so logical a step as then looking beyond Latin European culture for comparable customs in image-making was, in practice, impossible.

It is no exaggeration to say that for some of the more public faces in Voynich studies, the reaction was close to hysteria if one noticed aspects of the imagery plainly incompatible with the ‘Latin Christian author’ hypothesis. Researchers were personally maligned; efforts made to prevent or distort research; and finally (and currently) a practice of adamantly refusing to admit the existence of any research whose conclusions fail to support the presently dominant hypothetical ‘history’.  One is, for example, accused of being ‘disrespectful’ to a long-dead member of Europe’s minor nobility if one questions whether too much weight has not been placed on a report of a distant event in which a second-hand rumour was allegedly repeated by Mnishovsky.  Yet the same persons who are incensed that one should cast aspersions on the (minorly noble) Mnishovsky seem not to feel the the slightest qualm about maligning Jesuits en masse or, indeed, defaming living members of the so-called ‘Voynich community’ who refuse to conform to the hole-y Roman Emperor theory.

Really determined theory-pushers are beyond scholarly debate, and impervious to evidence other than items that can be deployed in service to some heavily-crafted hypothetical (or, as Pelling would prefer  ‘intellectual-‘) history for the manuscript..

Abandonment of the primary evidence, in favor of more elaborate fictional histories, is not the way to break the dilemma.  The solution is, quite simply, a return to independent research and lots of it.

Pelling offers his existential lament about text-less images:

What, then, are contemporary historians to make of the Voynich Manuscript, a barque adrift in a wine-dark sea of textlessness? In VoynichLand, we have letters, letters everywhere, and not a jot for them to read: and without close reading’s robotic exoskeleton to work with, where could such a text-centric generation of scholars begin?

Well,  ‘contemporary historians’ are not exactly what we need.  Their job starts once we have established reliable provenance for (severally) the object; its written text; and its imagery.

Lamenting the lack of any  written ‘manual’ isn’t usually accepted as excuse for inability to provenance things. Instead, the usual form of interview for work of that sort begins by inviting the  candidate to view a range of heterogeneous artefacts –  nicely arranged on the side table, and not rarely under the watchful eye of a chap one whom one suspects may be carrying a gun.

The  candidate is then asked their opinion on each thing – proposed date, place of origin, and any additional information they feel able to add.  Crying ‘Woe is me; it has no manual and I’m an intellectual historian’ is unlikely to impress.  In the real world.

If you can’t  recognise distinctions conveyed by stylistics, range of media, and  attitudes to depiction of e.g.  persons, trees or rocks … well… Next!

So as I see it, the basic problem in provenancing the Voynich manuscript’s imagery is not that it can’t be read; it is that so very few people are able to take it seriously enough to study it , and fewer still have the preliminary range of prior studies and experience to recognise the significance of non-Latin elements in what they look at.

In a way that is also Marraccini’s difficulty; for she knows a great deal about certain Latin manuscripts and their informing texts – but hasn’t the range needed to first assess the position of this imagery in the wider perspective.  Comparative iconography is a whole other specialty.

Pelling has an attitude to imagery and iconographic method so frivolous that he hasn’t bothered to learn how imagery is approached in the real world. It’s a little depressing to  read his characterisation of it as

.. the Voynich’s beguiling, misleading, and crisply non-religious images.

Nice, though, to see the ‘non-religious’ notion finally accepted.  It was only three years ago that I last received the usual insult or two for informing the Voynicheros that no Christian religious imagery was evident in this manuscript.  Not that there’s nothing in it qualifying as ‘religious imagery’.

Is it true that the Voynich imagery is ‘beguiling and misleading’?

Not in my opinion.  I see statements like that as a form of self-justification easier than doing the work. Shifting responsibility for inability to read imagery, by laying it all on some imaginary ‘author’ is as unnecessary as it is common..

Pelling just dismisses what is beyond his own competence, asserting that  “These contain plants that are real, distorted, imaginary, and/or impossible; strange circular diagrams; oddly-posed nymphs arranged in tubes and pools; and curious map-like diagrams. They famously lead everywhere and nowhere simultaneously, like a bad mirror-room fight-scene in 1960s Avengers TV episodes.”

Any of that true?  No – just a string of vague, largely subjective impressions uttered from a depth of practical ignorance.

Doing the equivalent of sweeping the chessboard clear in a fit of petulance, Pelling asks us to join him in a bit of communal sympathising.

“We [sic] can’t tell whether a given picture happens to parallel one of the plants in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s famous (so-called) “alchemical herbals” … or whether we’re just imagining that it echoes a specific plant in this week’s interesting Arabic book of wonders; or whether its roots were drawn from a dried sample but its body was imagined; or whether a different one of the remaining three hundred and eighty post-rationalizations that have been made for that page happens to hold true.

Well, obviously it’s not just Pelling’s problem, but one shared by unspecified  mates, but the solution to bewilderment is better information, and usually for an adult that requires research. Impressive fictions, represented as ‘intellectual history’ won’t get the study any further forward.

Pelling is also wrong in the way he imagines we start the process of provenancing problematic imagery:

“… Find[ing] a telling detail.”

If you don’t know and won’t study, how to you know which detail is ‘telling’ and what isn’t?

Again –  not the manuscript’s problem. Just the eyeballer’s.




  1. I agree that Nick has written better posts than that one. My conviction remains that we will gain access to the text through the imagery, and not the other way around. To get enough “cribs” as they call it. But as you say, this first requires a profound understanding and secondly acceptance of the imagery and the range of cultures and potential languages involved. Ah well, onward and upwards!


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