ON THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT AND THE MYTH OF NORTHERN ITALY

 

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The Voynich manuscript (aka VMS) has been referred to as the world's most mysterious manuscript and this is certainly a designation that is well-deserved. Its pages display drawings of Europeans and of European culture yet, beyond the broad conclusion that it comes to us from the Middle Ages, scholars have been unable to specify who wrote it.

In medieval times it was common practice to copy old manuscripts on to fresh parchment every century or two (or whenever the older version began to fade) in order to preserve those writings. That's why we are able to read Plato and Aristotle today. Radiocarbon has dated the VMS parchment to the early 15th century (from 1404 to 1438), but if the VMS is a copy of earlier writings (as some scholars have claimed due to its flawless redaction), we remain in the dark as to where and when the original was created.

Scholars have examined virtually every extant medieval manuscript in search of similarities with the VMS. It's not just the never-seen and undecipherable VMS script that could not be found elsewhere: VMS drawings of imaginary plants, of a strange cosmology, and of nude women trying to survive in a tropical swamp, are all things without parallel in medieval literature. It's as if the VMS is the only surviving relic of an episode of medieval history about which all historical records have been erased.

In the opening paragraph of its article on the Voynich manuscript, Wikipedia tells us "the text may have been composed in Italy during the Italian Renaissance." Other sources including documentary films about the VMS are more forceful in claiming authorship in Italy (particularly Northern Italy). Some sources even suggest that it was compiled by Italian monks ignoring the fact that this manuscript of drawings doesn't show us a single depiction of a monk or a monastery, nor even anything biblical for that matter.

The idea of origin in northern Italy is reported to have been derived from the following drawing in the VMS, to which I have added labels, a couple of which are merely guesses:

 

Voynich Manuscript Fortress

 

Specifically, it is the feature labeled M-Shaped Merlons (strictly, openings at the top of castle walls) that ties it to northern Italy as they used M-shaped merlons for decorative purposes on chateaus built there during the 14th and 15th centuries. I said decorative purposes because M-shaped merlons are somewhat useless for military defense: typically, an archer would shoot an arrow in the open space, then fall back behind the wall to reload. But due to the V-opening in the middle of the M, the archer's head would be exposed to incoming projectiles of the attackers when he went to reload.

In any case, what we see depicted in the VMS is clearly a fortress,. It was built on top of a mountain with very steep cliffs and it looks like it was built to withstand a prolonged siege.

Another noticeable feature of that VMS drawing is the coned tower with balcony and windows. And here we encounter a serious problem with the northern Italy theory: I have been unable (and apparently along with everyone else) to find any historical evidence that a coned tower like that was ever seen or built anywhere in Italy. Indeed, coned towers were a feature of French architecture, not Italian architecture.

Typically, the tower of a mountaintop fortress would look down on the upward path, and it would be built over the main entrance so that defenders, from the balcony, could hurl down stones or boiling oil on anyone trying to break through the door. Note the defensive merlons (not M-shaped) around the tower in the VMS drawing. The gate on the wall of M-shaped merlons, therefore, likely opens up to the part of the mountaintop needing no defense, that is, self-protected by the vertical slopes.

It is possible to identify the VMS fortress by looking through medieval drawings for a mountaintop fortress that had a single coned tower with balcony and windows:

 

Medieval Manuscript Drawing of Montsegur

 

You are looking at Montsegur, a fortress in southwestern France that was completely dismantled, stone by stone, by a French army in 1244 CE. The chateau currently seen on the mountaintop was built centuries later and bears no resemblance to the original of which no trace remains. Here we see a photo of the mountain to help us appreciate its steep slopes:

 

Wikipedia Photograph of Montsegur Mountain

 

Montsegur was the last stronghold of heretical religion known as Catharism. In 1243-4, the fortress was occupied by some 200 perfects (Cathar clergy) who were pacifists refusing to fight and by a few hundred civilian refugees. They were defended by some 100 knights against an attacking army numbering up to 10,000 strong. When the attackers managed to get a catapult up the mountain, the Cathars decided to surrender. Those who renounced the heresy were let go, and the roughly 200 perfects, faithful to their beliefs, were burned alive in giant bonfire in a field below the fortress. The medieval manuscript drawing (above) depicts that scene. And the VMS shows us the field:

 

Voynich Manuscript Depiction of Fortress and Field of Fallen Cathars

 

The stars represent perfects who were burned alive. Here as elsewhere in the VMS, stars on their own or attached to an extended hand represent dead people who escaped the cycle of material reincarnation to spend eternity in the spiritual world.

Others who die go into a state of limbo awaiting rebirth in the material world. This was symbolized by the stump of a tree, which is dead because the tree is gone yet lives through its roots in the ground. The following drawing, attached to the field, depicts the fate of those who were not able to escape reincarnation:

 

Voynich Manuscript Depiction of the Stump of Reincarnation

 

Souls (the circles) are held within the stump for a long time, and are then spit out as blood through the mouth on top, regenerating life in the material world.

Below the field, we see the flames of the bonfire:

 

Voynich Manuscript Depiction of the Flames of Montsegur

 

It took the Inquisition and its vast network of torture chambers a few more decades to completely exterminate the Cathars, but for all practical purposes the Cathar heresy came to an end in the bonfire of Montsegur, March, 1244 CE.

Rare, very rare, for the Middle Ages, Catharism was a religion in which men and women had equal status and women could even perform the rituals and ceremonies of their religion. The VMS gives us many depictions of men and women enjoying equal status:

 

Voynich Manuscript Depiction of Gender Equality

 

This is definitely not the type of thing you would see drawn by believers of the dominating religion of that epoch.

The Cathars had only one sacrament (consolamentum), a type of baptism without water, whereupon a member of the clergy would place his or her right hand upon to forehead of the recipient to cleanse the soul for unimpeded entrance into the afterlife, with the idea that a cleansed soul would exit the cycle of reincarnation. Thus, this ceremony was normally performed as close to death as possible because it could only be administered once in a lifetime. We see it depicted in VMS drawings including the following:

 

Voynich Manuscript Depiction of Consolamentum

 

The Cathars did not believe in procreation because their objective was for us to depart the material world and live eternally in the spiritual world, thus bringing more beings into the material world was viewed as undesirable. The following drawing, showing a girl literally running away from a guy with desires, reflects their aversion to procreation:

 

Voynich Manuscript Depiction of Cathar Aversion to Procreation

 

The Roman church made a good point in claiming that this heretical religion would lead to the extinction of the human race, but on the plus side, it was a religion of love-thy-neighbor and was far ahead of its time in educating their converts and training them in trade skills like garment and parchment making.

Philosophically, the Cathar outlook was dualistic, also known as Gnostic. They believed that there were two Gods, a Good God that they adored, and a Bad God which was worshiped by the Roman Catholics of their day. Each side viewed the other as demonic. In the 13th century, the Roman Church organized a Crusade to go to France to wipe out the Devil worshipers, and an estimated half million Cathars were killed. In the process, all Cathar literature was likewise destroyed. What we know of them comes mainly from Inquisition records.

On Montsegur (the fortress we just discussed), Wikipedia tells us: "A popular though as yet unsubstantiated theory holds that a small party of Cathar Perfects escaped from the fortress before the massacre at prat dels cremats. It is widely held in the Cathar region to this day that the escapees took with them le trésor cathar. What this treasure consisted of has been a matter of considerable speculation: claims range from sacred Gnostic texts to the Cathars' accumulated wealth, which might have included the Holy Grail."

A later edition of Wikipedia tells a slightly different story: "It has been claimed that three or four perfecti survived; they left the castle by a secret route to recover a treasure of the Cathars that had been buried in a nearby forest in the weeks prior to the surrender. The treasure not only contained material valuables but also documents and possibly relics. Nothing about its whereabouts is known."

The Cathars rejected the Old Testament as a product of the Bad God granted that it projected endless killing and enslavement of human beings. From the New Testament may have come their belief in brotherly love, but what about reincarnation, the equality of women, and other strange beliefs? Where do we find the source of the stump to symbolize rebirth? What is missing are the writings of the Good God.

It is logical to suppose that the Cathars at Montsegur (as this was their last stronghold) would have been in possession of the writings of the Good God. And surely they feared those writings could fall into possession of the worshipers of the Bad God who might use them for evil purposes. One solution during that prolonged siege would be to destroy the original writings and encrypt its words with a system of encryption that the Roman Inquisition would never be able to break. The siege of Montsegur lasted ten months, from May 1243 to March 1244, so they had time. The VMS drawing of Montsegur places the origins of the VMS in southwestern France, 1244 CE, and simultaneously it provides us with a motive for creating a complex system of encryption.

Of course, the above applies only to the text section of 23 pages at the end of the VMS. Likely, the plant drawings were created later to protect the writings of the Good God by concealing the importance of the text section. It was a brilliant strategy: today, it is widely believed that the text section contains recipes for the cooking of plants!

Other Considerations

As for the hundreds of drawings found within the VMS, there is none that will convincingly date it later than 1244 CE. For example, there is no depiction of the gunpowder cannon whose use became widespread in the 14th century, nor is there a depiction of the Black Death that wiped out much of the population of Europe around the middle of the 14th century. At one point the depiction of Sagittarius as a legged human with crossbow (rather than as a centaur) was thought to be new but then a precedent from centuries earlier was found.

Back in the 20th century, medieval scholars generally saw no connection between the VMS and Italy. To the contrary, one even commented: "It is strange that the draftsman should have so completely escaped all medieval or Renaissance influence." Indeed, typical manuscripts of medieval Italy don't even remotely resemble the VMS. Here I compare a page of musical notes from an Italian manuscript of the 15th century (left) with one from the VMS (right):

 

Medieval Music Page Compared with Voynich Manuscript Depiction

 

Can anyone seriously believe that these come from the same culture?

Back in the 20th century, someone once asked the cryptologist Prescott Currier if the lack of erasures in the VMS meant it was a copying job. Currier responded "It must be a copying job." His linguistic and handwriting analysis led him to conclude that the VMS is a product of "six to eight scribes (copyists, encipherers, call them what you will)." Radiocarbon dates this copy to the early 15th century but that tells us nothing of the date of the original creation.

There is also no certain indication that the 15th-century copy (the current-day VMS) was made in Italy and not elsewhere. In one section of the VMS the authors compare their dirty pools of swamp water with a Roman bath. The Romans, however, built baths all across the empire so there is nothing to link this specifically to Italy.

In summary, a superficial perusal of VMS drawings was all that is required to refute the notion that the VMS was created in northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance: wrong country, wrong century. As we saw, at least parts of the VMS were originally created by Cathar religious heretics during the 13th century. For true scholars, that conclusion is not debatable as the graphic evidence is overwhelming.

Concluding Remarks

In the realm of speculations, a series of inferences has led me to believe that a hundred years prior to the fall of Montsegur, the writings of the Good God of the Cathari were physically present in Oxford, England, where the Knights Templar had brought them to be studied after having discovered them underneath the ruins of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It seems the writings themselves may have directed the Knights Templar to Oxford as it was located in the part of Mercia closest to London. But today, as far as I know, no historical record of those writings can be found either at Oxford or in southwestern France. Indeed, if the Church had allowed so much as a single mention of those writings to survive, there would have been endless quests to find and read them. But one cannot seek writings that are not known to exist.

In our coverage of the siege of Montsegur it was noted that, just before the end, a few Cathars managed to escape taking with them le trésor cathar. A vast effort was made to track down those escapees (including "interrogation" of the survivors) but this effort failed. That is quite surprising because Inquisition spies were everywhere. Consequently, the Church never acquired a complete text of the writings of the Cathar god, and therefore they were unable to recognize abstruse allusions to those writings when they encountered them. In other words, a short work in Latin allegedly written by a monk and several texts written in Hebrew escaped destruction. And therein lies our ability to partly reconstruct the medieval history of the writings as we know a few instances of who, when and where there was contact with them. In a follow-up article, I will show how the VMS marginalia sets us on course to learn even more about the history of the VMS.

Some years ago I saw a film called The DaVinci Code. Like our story about Cathars versus the Church it was a story about other heretics versus the Church. In the film, a few people were assassinated, but that's hardly anything to speak of. In real life, hundreds of thousands were tortured and killed in effort to find and destroy the writings that are encrypted into the VMS. Yale University has no idea what they have in their possession.

References

VMS graphics can be found at Yale University Digital Collections Title: Cipher Manuscript (Voynich Manuscript)
https://collections.library.yale.edu/
pdfs/2002046.pdf

Citations of medieval scholars from the early 20th century can be found in D'Imperio, M. E., "The Voynich Manuscript: An Elegant Enigma", National Security Agency, 1978

Prescott Currier citations can be found on the website voynich.nu. The creator of that website may have been a proponent of the Italy myth, but nonetheless his website provides some useful technical information on the VMS.

 


 

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Follow-up reading

The article on this website's Home Page reinforces the conclusion that VMS encryption was created in the 13th century:

On the Voynich manuscript and the myth of useless marginalia: An introduction to how it was decoded

Three further articles are being planned:

On the Voynich manuscript and the myths of old world plants and animals. This article will include an explanation of how the VMS escaped the scourge of the Papal Inquisition.

On the Voynich manuscript and the myths of Prague and Kircher. Among other things, this article will explain why from the 16th century to Wilfrid Voynich it is likely the VMS never left England.

The third article is as yet unnamed. It will concern decoding theory and include an evaluation of cabalistic constructs.

 

 


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