This is a dream come true. A beautiful, big tome with short yet comprehensive texts by multiple experts from several disciplines contextualizing the famous Voynich Manuscript and a complete, unabridged, true-to-form, image-perfect facsimile edition of that same book. We can now peruse its pages as if holding this unique bibliophile’s gem in our hands and, if you’re up for it, try to unlock its secrets on your own leisure and by your own capacities.
Being interested in comics may mean, more or less, being interested also in its history. Depending on where you’re coming from or the kinds of associations you’re open to do, this may mean something more or less parochial – say, zeroing in on the minutiae of the North-American superhero lore industry, the Belgian-Byzantine intricacies on where and how Hergé plucked his ideas from for Tintin‘s adventures, or who exactly drew the backgrounds on that particular strip in that particular day when the main author had the runs – or, quite the contrary, you can be obsessed in cataloging every single instance when throughout human culture someone, somewhere, somehow, put images and text together in the same surface. Godspeed!
Still, there are a number of objects and cultural productions that are more or less obvious or expected in the putative pre-history of comics and/or other graphic-verbal systems of expression, including systems that cannot be (so far) understood! More often than not, it is true that, as David Kunzle alerted back in the day, and others mentioned it as well, when we pluck from the history of art or of print culture examples of purported “precursors,” what we’re doing is a kind of magic. We have a solid idea that comics had to come about due to the interconnection of technological advancements, stylistic revolutions but above all social changes, which means its emergence within a more or less popular, bourgeois culture in 19th century Europe. And despite its variegated history, it ended up being conflated into one big lump of “popular culture.” So in order to create some cultural cachet, we run to whatever comes handy and hope that its prestige brushes off on our own favourite field. We look at Botticelli’s images for Dante’s Commedia and go “hey, kids, it’s comics!” But there are in fact a number of works that, to all intents and purposes, do look like modern comics. Such as Alfonso El Sabio’s Cantigas de Santa Maria, to quote the most blatant example. This may be historically wrong, but nevertheless it is still worth it to learn a little about the most engrossing examples of the interaction of text and image in order to have a broader understanding of the culture from which comics and illustration, as we understand it today, would emerge.
Such a list would be silly, as much would depend on what we’re looking for and I am not educated enough to know any better. For medieval manuscripts, for instance, of which the Voynich is one, there are volumes by Michael Kerrigan, Christopher De Hamel and Raymond Clemens himself, the editor of this volume, which are all great departure points. But time and again, we come across a number of favourites in this type of discussion, from the Papyrus of Ani to the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, from Hans Holbein’s Totentanz cycle to Daniel Chodowiecki’s on many narrative or thematic series, from Max Klinger, Ein Handschuh to Frans Masereel’s books.
The Voynich is a singular example. There are a number of other medieval books that employ cyphers and coded language (the Hypnerotomachia could be seen as one of them), but it seems that the whole context of this book is so mysterious that it has been impossible to even start its decoding, despite the many attempts. The book was “discovered” by a broader public arena in the 1910s, after it reached the hands of Russian-born, British rare book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, which gave it its most famous name. For a time, there were suspicions that it was a hoax, a faked manuscript, a very elaborate joke at the expense of book connoisseurs. But after it became part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University in 1969, becoming officially the “Beinecke MS 408,” there are definitive test results – the bulk of which performed around 2009 – putting its production within the mid-15th century, although no definitive (or even approximation!) answer can be given about its author, place and, above all, purpose.
Divided in more or less clear sections – a herbarium, followed by an astrological section, then what seems to be a series of scenes of women bathing in greenish, balming waters or with incredibly weird contraptions, and so on – the Voynich manuscript is packed with beautiful, detailed, expertly painted, vivid images, but they do not seem to represent anything easily identifiable. The plants do not correspond to known or extinct species. The constellations are somewhat warped. The baths scenes are not easy to identify. Despite the many clues (say, the crenelation of a building in one scene is compared to a specific 15th-century technique of Italian battlement architecture, some of the bathing women are contrasted to an alchemical volume), nothing seems to dovetail into a coherent, overall theory… The book is also filled with written text, but in a script that is mind-boggling for even the brightest minds of cryptology history (Gerry Kennedy has a great book about this feature).
As mentioned, the book contains an introduction by Deborah Harkness, and then 6 essays on several facets of the volume, including by the editor himself, Clemens, the very curator of Early Books and Manuscripts from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The essays deal with the “earliest owners,” Voynich himself and his relationship with the 15th century book, a number of “physical findings,” according to multiple tests made on the book throughout the years, especially after being in Yale, “Cryptographic attempts,” and “Alchemical traditions.” While these last two do not actually repeat the findings and information that has been put forward by other authors, some which debunked, some of which plausible, they all point out in an almost exhaustive manner the sources from which they draw, allowing for the reader to continue their own research or learning. So while this Yale book is less a one-pit stop to learn everything (?) one could about what has been said seriously about the Voynich manuscript, it is probably the best place to start.
And, of course, the main attraction of this volume is the fac-simile edition of the manuscript itself. While there are online versions, the experience of looking at it on paper, and turning its pages, unfolding its larger pages, and so on, is a wonderful feeling. Given the format of the book, which is about 9 x 12 inches, the reproduction pages leave quite generous white margins. This allows for the possibility of the readers to take their own notes, I guess, in an attempt to decode or read the Voynich, although I very much doubt that such space is enough for even starting to do so.
As some people say, this is a favourite book one can’t read.
A thank you note to the publisher, for the review copy; all images plucked from the internet.