Aug 24, 2017

The Voynich Manuscript: Theories, Both Crackpot and Legitimate

Yale, Beinecke MS 408, fol. 86v-86r
Madison Taylor

The Voynich manuscript is something of an oddity in the world of manuscript studies, as its appeal extends far beyond the hallowed halls of academia. Theories on its origin and interpretation would be no more out of place as published works in an academic journal than they would be in a conspiratorial conversation shared over pints of beer in a dimly lit pub. It is a tauntingly enigmatic document that preys on the desperate human desire for understanding, and its allure has trapped smarter folks than I in a vicious cycle of furrowed brows and tugged-out hairs. Regardless of the inevitable disappointment that awaits, I am nonetheless going to step up, roll back my sleeves, and join the ranks of those who have tried to pry the sword of meaning from this obstinate block of text.

Often referred to as "the world's most mysterious manuscript", this cryptic, 234 page codex has mystified scholars, linguists, cryptographers, and armchair code breakers since it was purchased by the Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich in 1912. Housed in the Yale Rare Book and Manuscript Library as Beinecke MS 408, the book comprises a series of obscure herbal, astrological, and anatomical illustrations. The document itself is quite striking: the text is written on vellum in brown ink, and the drawings are coloured with vibrant greens and blues, deep red, and dusty gold. Carbon dating of the parchment tells us that the manuscript was likely written in the early fifteenth century. Yet despite its five hundred year tenure on this Earth, there has yet to be one person who truly understands what the text says, or what its strange pictures are trying to convey.

May 12, 2017

Latin Glosses and Commentaries: The Prick of Conscience

The Prick of Conscience is an early thirteenth-century didactic devotional poem and is one of the most circulated English verse texts with over 178 witnesses (manuscript copies of the poem). The poem itself follows the cura pastoralia tradition of producing edifying texts for a lay Christian audience: it is a religious text which could be easily accessible to an audience that was unable to read Latin, the language that most religious literature of the time was written in.

Wellesley College MS 8, p. 61. This gloss announces to the reader that a list is beginning.
One witness of the poem is contained in Wellesley College MS 8. This late fifteenth-century copy contains an unexpected feature, however. While most of the text is in English, the manuscript also contains glosses. These glosses, unlike the main text, are composed in Latin. This poses an interesting question: why are the glosses in Latin if the main text is in English?

Mar 7, 2017

Troy Book Comparisons

The last of Hailey Mullock's series on decoration in manuscripts of Lydgate's Troy Book.

Cambridge, Trinity College MS O.5.2, fol. 38r
The Hierarchy of Decoration within the Troy Book text in British Library MS Royal 18 D II appears to be integral to the text. In order to determine how integral the decoration was to the text or if it was integral at all, I compared Royal 18 D II to other manuscripts that contain the Troy Book text. There are currently twenty-three manuscripts that contain John Lydgate’s Troy Book, eight of which are illustrated, “and a basic visual program can be detected in each of them” (Whitehead v). Of those twenty-three, only three digital facsimiles are available on the Web at this time: of British Library MS Royal 18 D II; Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O.5.2; and Cambridge, Massachusetts, Houghton Library, Harvard University MS Eng 752.

In examining these three manuscripts, it appears that the hierarchy of decoration is not consistent or integral to this particular text, as the manuscripts vary in decoration. However, further research into the inaccessible manuscripts shows that most of the time the manuscripts containing the Troy Book text have a hierarchy of decoration similar to both Royal 18 D II and Trinity O.5.2. The majority of the manuscripts contain similar decoration at the beginning of each book and the decorations are all in the same order of the hierarchy in each manuscript. The beginnings of the books are marked by an illustration, border decoration, and a large display initial following the illustration. What is even more interesting is that although the illustrations are not always identical, the subject and placement of the illustrations are the same for the majority of the manuscripts. It is possible that there was a presentation copy, an exemplar, from which all of the illustrations were copied.