Watched this show about the Voynich manuscript last night on History's Greatest Mysteries. In spite of the HISTORY Channel’s hokey presentation style, it was quite good. Lisa Fagin Davis of the Medieval Academy was admirable as one of the expert talking heads. Here's my own take on the history of the manuscript in an excerpt from my forthcoming novel, The Medievalist:
In this situation, Quint’s scheme for using the Voynich manuscript was utter perfection.
“The manuscript gets its name from a guy named Wilfrid Voynich,” Quint said. “How he came to own it—the manuscript’s provenance—is lengthy and tedious. Suffice to say that the codex passed through the hands of some of the greatest minds of the early modern period, including an alchemist named Georg Baresch, a medical doctor named Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, and the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who may have gotten it from the occult philosopher John Dee, who was active in Rudolf’s court. None of them succeeded in deciphering it.”
Quint took a breath and continued.
“Voynich himself spent his life trying to figure it out but died in disappointment. Ironically, in 1917, when the US finally entered World War I, he was suspected of espionage and was even investigated by the FBI for possessing a secret code, which they believed to be ‘a tool of the Hun.’”
Another pause for breath before he concluded the provenance question.
“Voynich’s widow, Ethel, bequeathed the mysterious codex to a woman named Anne Nill, who sold it to a certain H.P Kraus, who in 1969 donated it to Beinecke. Since then, the Voynich manuscript bears the call number, Beinecke MS 408.”
He opened the replica copy he’d borrowed from the library, the 2017 critical edition published by Watkins, and pushed it toward me.
“What do you see?” Quint said, just as Kantorowicz would have asked if he were here.
Beinecke MS 408 has 116 folios. Almost every page has drawings of, like, plants, or stars and planets, or human figures. One section shows dozens of female nudes with swollen bellies swimming or wading in green water that flows through a system of organic-looking pipes and tubes. All the drawings seem to be rendered by the same person, whose artistic skill might best be called “colloquial.” The drawings are simple but lively, not quite childlike but also not as sophisticated as, say, Leonardo da Vinci. The ink drawings are enhanced by washes of green, yellow, red, blue, and brown. The manuscript text is indecipherable, so it’s impossible to know its subject or meaning.
“Based on the drawings,” I said, “it seems quasi-scientific, like, maybe medical, since herbs and astrology were both important in medieval concepts of health. The nude women in water might illustrate some kind of bathing cure?”"
“Good,” Quint said. “Now, here are the big questions about the Voynich: Is it written in some long-forgotten language and alphabet unrelated to the familiar languages of scholarship, like Latin of Greek? Or is it an enciphered text, designed to hide its esoteric secrets? Or is it both? One thing’s for sure: the Voynich isn’t random. It has repeating patterns of letters and words that suggest rules of grammar and other aspects of human language. But which one?”
According to Quint, there were as many theories about the Voynich as there have been scholars trying to decipher it. Linguists have posited that the manuscript is written in Anglo-Saxon, Middle High German, medieval Welsh, Old Dutch, Old Spanish, classical Latin, Hebrew (or Arabic written with Hebrew letters), Manchurian, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Some have claimed that it’s an entirely artificial language. One scholar suggested a secret language given to Judas by Jesus Christ.
“It’s eluded the greatest cryptologists of the 20th century,” he said. “William Friedman of American Military Intelligence, who cracked Japan’s ‘purple code’ during World War II, tried and gave up. Even Alan Turing couldn’t breach the secrets of the Voynich. In 1978, the U.S. National Security Agency, the NSA, studied Beinecke MS 408 and determined that the manuscript was a hoax.”
“Maybe that was to avoid their embarrassment from, like, not being able to figure it out.”
The purpose behind the Voynich manuscript has also led to some crackpot conjecture. Is it a manuscript from the future describing alien technology? Is it an ancient text that forewarns of the end times? Is it a stage prop created by Francis Bacon, the purported author of the works of William Shakespeare?
The Voynich is all these things. It’s an empty vessel that conspiracy theorists use to concoct their crazy visions. It’s a blank slate for kooks and occultists to write their esoteric narratives. It’s a turquoise Thunderbird convertible driven by Thelma and Louise and Wile E. Coyote, where otherwise serious academics hitch a ride and have their careers driven off a cliff.
Since Donald Trump’s election, academics have argued over how best to combat white supremacists weaponizing the Middle Ages, like the marchers in Charlottesville who brandished medieval symbols on their clothing, flags, and shields.
In The Medievalist, Yale grad students Molly Isaacson and Quinton Quick team up with their history professor to fight neo-Nazis on the battlefield of signs and symbols. Armed only with a mysterious manuscript and their knowledge of the past, they set in motion a scheme that will disrupt and derange the Alt-Right for years to come.
The Medievalist is a fictional response to the real-life threat from contemporary neo-Nazis. Set in today’s America, the novel is chock full of real history, yet resonates with present-day issues: the dangers of racism and white supremacy, the uses and abuses of the past, and the responsibilities of academia.
Been away from this blog for a while. Time to get back to it. Here's a weird little "preface" that I wrote for my upcoming novel The Medievalist. It's no longer in the book, but it's kind of fun. Kudos to anyone who can discern the literary influence for this.
Hint, hint ...
(Leave your guesses in the comments.)
(Supplied by the last scholar to hold the chair in paleography at King’s College, London)
The term “medieval” is an adjectival form derived from the Latin medium aevum, meaning “Middle Age,” indicating an historic period between antiquity and the modern era.
Latin medium aevum
English medieval, mediaeval, mediæval (archaic)
medeival, medievel, medeivel, midevil, mid-evil, medival, mideval, midieval, midievel, mideival, mideivel
Preferred English pronunciation (quadri-syllabic):
Sloppy English pronunciation (tri-syllabic):
Languages in which the term is a singular noun (Middle Age):
Spanish edad media
Plural nouns (Middle Ages):
Since mediaeval means “Middle Age,” it is incorrect—indeed redundant—to use the two terms together, e.g., “medieval Middle Ages,” though this often occurs, especially in undergraduate papers.
A 1967 study on word-frequency, published by Brown University professors Henry Kučera and W. Nelson Francis, analyzed over one million words across a cross-section of newspaper articles, academic journals, fiction, humor, written in American English. The word “medieval” appeared eighteen times, the same number as “aluminum,” “angel,” and “Arkansas.” Yet, for more than 50% of these occurrences, the term was not used to describe the historical period, but rather in a disparaging, pejorative manner indicating something “barbaric,” “backward,” or just plain “bad.”
(Supplied by a grad student in medieval history, hoping to justify his vocation to his parents.)
What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.
Generals think war should be waged like the tourneys of the Middle Ages. I have no use for knights; I need revolutionaries.
I developed a passion for the Middle Ages the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.
An essay I wrote on the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage is featured this month in the British magazine, Catholic Herald. Read "A Pilgrim's Way."
There were two lucky winners at Sunday's book launch, each of who will receive a copy of Memoir of a PILGRIMAGE FOR EIGHT.
They are Inez Berenato of New Jersey and Julie Johnson of Minneapolis.
Memoir of a PILGRIMAGE FOR EIGHT
Let me give you an idea of a typical day.
Rise early. The earlier the better because you want to put some miles behind you before the sun gets too high. Wash up. Eat breakfast. Sort your lunch for that day, usually sandwiches and fruit. On a lucky day, the cooks will have purchased tins of sardines with various sauces. Water. Do not forget to take water, though if you do, cemeteries often have spigots with potable water. Keep an eye out.
Pack your day bag. Don’t forget your map, which you should have prepared the night before. Don’t be one of those pilgrims who waits until that morning to prepare the day’s map. Be sure to bring your rain gear, hat, and walking stick. Bring your journal if you’re journaling and remember your fully-charged cell phone, which you will need when you have to call the support team to tell them you’re lost.
“Never say you are lost,” the support team will tell you. “You are geographically embarrassed.” This is meant to make you feel better.
Attend Mass, which will be over by the departure time of 7am. Look around and see that there are only two or three of you besides the priest. Oh, well.
Pack your sleeping bag and other kit and leave these next to the entry of the lodging. On this particular morning, you are being driven to the starting point at the edge of a forest. Do not be late or your lateness will cause everyone else to get a late start.
Start out as a group. Look at your maps. You did remember to bring your map, didn’t you? Review any peculiarities of the route. Review the meeting point, sometimes called the RV or rendezvous point. Note the pick-up time. Have you packed enough water?
The group departs. Within minutes, the fast walkers have disappeared from view. You are a slow walker and you’ve learned not to be bothered by this. Set your own pace. Appreciate the sights and sounds of wherever you are. Be present. You are not in the middle of whatever soul-crushing job you perform to pay the rent. You are on a pilgrimage: a beautiful, difficult, sweaty, but ultimately spiritually regenerating pilgrimage. Relish it!
Enjoy the company of the other walkers who have agreed to walk with you, at least for a while. Have lunch whenever you get hungry, preferably on the banks of a river, or on the seashore, or in the shade of a parish churchyard.
Continue your walk and try to take in everything. Or take in nothing. Sometimes zoning out is just the ticket. Arrive on time at the RV point. Even though you’re the slowest walker, you are not the last one to arrive because someone didn’t bring their map and got lost. Board the van and enjoy a brief bit of air conditioning as you’re driven to the new lodging for that night.
Memoir of a Pilgrimage for Eight
What is a pilgrimage?
This was a question that occupied our thoughts on an almost daily basis during our walk from Val-des-Choues to Pluscarden. What is a pilgrimage? And, depending on the answer, are we really doing a pilgrimage or is this just some sort of pleasant, walking holiday?
The practice of pilgrimage has its roots in religion and spirituality. It usually involves a journey (sometimes a very long journey), often with the goal of visiting a religious shrine or other location of great spiritual power.
Pilgrimage has existed in many cultures throughout history: Christians traveling to Jerusalem, Muslims making the haj to Mecca, Hindus on their way to Varanasi. Modern-day pilgrimage often emphasizes these historical roots. Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago today recreate a route that is at least 900 years old. Another aspect of pilgrimage, at least in the medieval Christian tradition, includes a kind of penance, the hardship of walking great distances acting as satisfaction for sins committed earlier.
Was the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage a pilgrimage, in any of those senses?
For starters, it was only loosely historical. The premise of the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage was based on the idea that Val-des-Choues in Burgundy sent monks to Scotland to found Pluscarden. Were we accurately recreating their journey?
First, we have no written record from the 13th-century monks who left Val-des-Choues for Scotland. Did they travel the whole way on foot? On horseback? By ship? Their sponsor, Scottish King Alexander II, could easily have provided any of these means of transportation.
But did he?
We also have no idea which path they took, by land or by sea. We can guess that those long-ago monks probably went in as straight a line as possible: from Val-des-Choues to Calais to Dover, then from Dover to Morayshire, to the future site of Pluscarden.
The route of the Pluscarden 1230 Pilgrimage wasn’t so simple, at least not in terms of being the shortest, most direct path. For example, our “re-constructed” pilgrimage began by heading south, for no other reason than we wished to visit Val-des-Choues’s other daughter monasteries—Val-Saint-Benoît and Val-Croissant — along the way.
And in the UK, instead of going from Dover straight up the east coast to Pluscarden, we cut west from London across to Prinknash, the Benedictine monastery that gave a new foundation to modern-day Pluscarden. From there we headed northeast again to Edinburgh, then west again to Ardchattan, another daughter house of Val-des-Choues, near Oban. Next we headed north and east again, visiting Beauly, a third daughter of Val-des-Choues in Scotland, before finally arriving at Pluscarden. All of this zig-zagging would have made no sense to our medieval counterparts. But for the Pluscarden 1230 pilgrims, it meant the chance for deeper experiences: visiting the great cathedrals at Reims, Laon, and Westminster; connecting to other monastic communities; even enjoying spiritual experiences not connected to organized religion, like hiking through the Scottish Highlands, whose immense beauty makes a strong case for God’s existence.
Was Pluscarden 1230 a real a pilgrimage?
1. Corona virus burst upon the scene,
2. And doctors gave these simple tasks to men
3. To flatten curves and reach a golden mean:
4. First, wash your hands until they’re good & clean,
5. Sing “Happy Birthday,” twice, then twice again.
6. Corona virus burst upon the scene,
7. So, give up shaking hands. Self-quarantine!
8. Keep six feet from each enemy and friend,
9. To flatten curves and reach the golden mean.
10. Stack toilet paper high in your latrine,
11. And binge your shows on Netflix from your den.
12. Corona virus burst upon the scene,
13. And it cares not who’s peasant, king, or queen.
14. Don’t leave the house, not e’en for church. Amen!
15. To flatten curves and reach the golden mean.
16. “But isolation’s boring,” said the teen.
17. “I’d rather protest global warming!” Then
18. Corona virus burst upon the scene,
19. To flatten curves and reach Earth’s golden mean.