Style – the critical element


The style in which the botanical pages  are drawn shows Indian and south-east Asian habits in art  have affected images first enunciated in a Hellenistic environment, something confirmed (not least) by the relative placing and weight of image over text. In addition there is some relatively late and fairly specific influence present in the form of a few, quite specific, details including the way certain twining roots are shown, these finding their close comparison in imagery produced in upper Mesopotamia for the Mashhad Dioscorides.  Earlier posts have discussed, explained and illustrated all this.


A slightly different pattern of historical influence is evident in the  ‘ladies’ astronomical folios  – including the ‘bathy-‘ folios.  Here again there is a basis in Hellenistic sources, but now overlaid with central and eastern Asian custom.  This is so for all the ‘ladies’ folios, although a late, heavy and rather ugly effort to bring the calendar into line which Latin mores means that the centres of the calendar, and the re-dressed figures are the least helpful to clarifying the origins and lineage of that imagery.


This post isn’t intended to reprise all the evidence, historical comparisons, comparative evidence and background detail provided cumulatively over the past ten years.


I can see  little point, either,  in trying to enlighten those determined to push any all-Latin-Christian-author theory.  My purpose here is only to show why the manuscript’s stylistics are  worth taking seriously in this study, where they have been constantly rationalised, ignored or re-interpreted the better to fit an erroneous idea to which some proponent is attached.  At  the moment we are seeing an effort made – against the entire history of botany, of cultural histories, economic history, technical histories, histories of cultural and artistic exchange and all the rest –   to assert that elites in central Europe were familiar with the banana plant before 1438.


The idea is preposterous, and no less so because a small number of Europeans had access to an illustrated copy of Ibn Botlan’s Book of Health, in which the banana plant is mentioned and (very abstractly) pictured.  It is understandable than an amateur often defines an image by nothing but some object perceived in it, but though understandable it is unfortunate.  Discerning the origin and intent of a problematic picture requires the viewer to treat it as a whole, and to grasp the implications of details and stylistics.


Nick Pelling is one of the few not to neglect stylistics; but he has taken a very superficial approach to them, and used what little he read to support his theory rather than to understand the images themselves.  He does not read pictures well.  That said, I trust my readers are not the sort of persons who dismiss a scholar’s work on the basis of a secondhand criticism: do read in full the Page  which he devoted to what he calls ‘Parallel Hatching’ and by which he tried to date the Voynich manuscript.


This is the nub:


Quite apart from the thorny issue of what these various drawings depict, can we say with strong certainty that these marks are parallel hatching? I think the answer is yes: and I hope you agree…. With the above evidence in mind, I contend that it would seem highly improbable to an art historian that the parallel hatching in the Voynich Manuscript is anything apart from, well, parallel hatching. And because the whole idea of parallel hatching seems to have originated with Florentine goldsmiths working in niello and/or printmaking in the 1440s before spreading to Venice, Germany and the rest of Europe around 1450, we can comfortably place 1440 as the Voynich Manuscript’s earliest date if it was made in Florence, or 1450 otherwise.


Furthermore, given that parallel hatching died out not long after the end of the fifteenth century, it seems probable (if not quite as certain) that the Voynich Manuscript originated during the same 1440-1510 period that saw the hatching flourish, with a more likely date range (from the lack of cross-hatching or zigzag hatching) being 1450-1480.


I’ve used here the very same picture – it’s his picture – which Pelling idid.


We don’t need to use such a method to date the manuscript’s manufacture.  The University of Arizona’s radiocarbon date range is 1405-1438.  In any case, style of drawing does not necessarily date a manuscript, and even provenancing the drawing doesn’t necessarily provenance the object in or on which the drawing appears.


But Pelling’s assertion that the drawings must be Renaissance Latin art is a seriously mistaken one, and worth correcting.  He supposes that by defining  certain  Voynich drawings as including ‘parallel hatching’ he makes a valid statement;  secondly, by presuming the whole work MUST be of European origin,  he supposes he may limit discussion of the imagery to the period and region where Renaissance ‘parallel hatching’ appears.


He does not question his initial perceptions – as he should nor pause to ask if indeed the use of hatching as it was used by Renaissance Italian graphic art is the only use of that technique which exists.   He mentions some opinion by which the introduction of parallel hatching techniques into Renaissance Italian art is attributed to Florentine goldsmiths – a patent nonsense when (as I have shown) it had been a continuing tradition in the Mediterranean for centuries in engraving of wood, ivory and even in penwork found on late papryi from Egypt.


But having such faith in what he has never paused to question,  Pelling sees his conclusions as unarguable – as they would be if his premises, assumptions, textual sources and reading had been comprehensive.  But they have not.


However, the fact is that most of Voynich studies consists not of informed opinion and equally informed debate, and too often a badly flawed idea becomes set within the discourse simply by repetition.   I feel it necessary to at least demonstrate that the presence of such a technique to model form is neither unique to Renaissance Europe nor unique to the Voynich manuscript.


Nor is what we have in these drawings incompatible with the evidence offered by the rest of the ‘ladies’ section and the map: that is, that they came westwards through the overland route from (or via) central Asia.


I expect that those who have studied the manuscript’s imagery will notice here more stylistic similarities than the  ‘hatching’.

It is not so only the same facility with line, or the same degree of casualness with which the idea of the ‘parallel’ is treated – though this is utterly contrary to the theoretical framework in which the Renaissance graphic artists used their version of hatching.  It is rather that these images from Jizhou, and the region and time from which they come, are completely compatible with the other evidence offered by  content – such as that in the map – and by the history of the period of transition to the west: something I began to treat in the ‘Clear Vision series’.   So for example, Pelling uses as one example a detail from that part of the Voynich map which depicts a sunken tower of earth, within high walls made apparently of earth or pise.   Nick simply used the illustration; he didn’t try to read it and did had not been able to read the map at all.  Its first analytical exposition was offered by the present writer in 2011.


Constructions of this sort, and the technique of rammed earth and/or pise were made only in central Asia or in north-west Africa.  They survive longest in arid environments.

ruins of the old silk-road city of Turfan (Turpan).

In this case, we can even locate the ‘tower’ with that strange semi-corkscrew twist, thanks to a photograph taken of the great fire-tower which once marked the western boundary of China, and which is mentioned even in classical geographies. It stood at Lop Nur, as both the Chinese and the late classical sources attest. (Once more, this is a point I’ve already treated earlier in the course of this study).

the stone part of the ‘stone tower’ – Lop Nur, the ancient border of China. The tower is mentioned as early as Ptolemy’s Geography.

Historical details


It was along that same high road, through Turpan en route to Mesopotamia that two respected eastern Christians travelled during the thirteenth century.


Bar Sawma was born and raised to the age of 20 in what is now Peking but  was then Khanbalik.


His companion on that journey was another eastern Christian named Mark, born in a nearby city.  Both were Uyghurs  and spoke a central Asian dialect.  (apropos of which Georg Stolfi years ago concluded that the Voynich text records a language from central Asia: he suggested Jurchen. On this same general issue, I note that  Philip Neal (who I’m sure would prefer me not to describe him as the most respected name in this study),  includes a page about EOHAN, a hypertext dictionary of Chinese historical pronunciation, in his refreshed website.


I won’t give a potted version of Bar Sawma’s story; better to read  from Wallis Budge’s translation from the Syriac.  There are two versions online, the first affected by OCR errors but which can be read without downloading. (here) The other is a better copy and a pdf. (here).


While I’m not arguing the Voynich manuscript  a work carried west by ‘the man from Peking’, here’s nothing preposterous about finding non-European imagery in a manuscript whose imagery reflects the styles of inner Asia at that time.


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