Category Archives: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Manuscript Road Trip: Visiting Voynich

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

As we begin to make our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t only restaurants and theaters that are opening up. Libraries, too, are reopening to the public, and Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is no exception. After several years of restricted access and closures, the Beinecke is now open for outside researchers, albeit with masks and proof of vaccination required. The Beinecke is one of my favorite places to visit, and when I heard that the Library would be welcoming outside researchers as of April 11, I made my plans right away, securing authorization to visit the campus and permission to spend April 22 with none other than MS 408, a.k.a. The Voynich Manuscript.

Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, MS 408 (“The Voynich Manuscript”), f. 77v detail
On my way!

It’s a two-and-a-half hour train ride from my Boston home to New Haven, Connecticut. A 6 AM train would ensure that I reached the Library right when it opened, giving me as much time as possible with the manuscript. After arriving in New Haven and Ubering to the Library, it took just a few minutes to confirm my authorization with the Library guard, put my bag away, and check in with the service desk. And then I could get to work.

You might be wondering why I felt I needed to see the Voynich Manuscript in person, since the Beinecke’s website provides hundreds of high-resolution images in an open-access environment. For most purposes, the online images are more than sufficient. And as thrilling as it is to handle such an important and ancient object, there are lots of reasons NOT to, including the need to protect it from over-handling and environmental exposure. That’s why I’ve had to get special permission to see the manuscript each time I’ve studied it in person (and if you want to know why I’m not wearing white cotton gloves, check out this blogpost from the experts at the British Library).

Photo by Michael Morand

This is my sixth time studying the Voynich Manuscript in person, and I feel very fortunate to have had those opportunities. For the work I’m doing – studying the relationship between the work of each of the five scribes and the codicological features of the manuscript – in-person examination is critical. I need to study the quire structure, the binding, and the sewing – the three-dimensional components of the manuscript. By exploring the collaborative nature of the crafting and writing of this manuscript, we come one step closer to understanding its origins. These codicological features can’t always be discerned in digital images; hence, my visit to the Library.

Folio 42r, line 1, detail

The high-resolution images on the Library’s website are also critically important for my work, as they facilitate a detailed examination of this unique writing system. But even images like these don’t always capture the paleographic features I’m looking for. For example, it’s hard to tell for sure the sequence of writing for the complex glyph found on the first line of folio 42 recto (shown at left). Looking at it in person, though, I can tell that the dark curved line was clearly written on top of the vertical line, rather than the other way around. This tells me something interesting about what’s happening here. After the original glyph was written, someone – probably one of the scribes – amended or corrected the glyph by adding the curving stroke. This, in turn, sheds light on the process of writing the manuscript. If someone was correcting or editing the text after it was written, that adds to the evidence that there is in fact meaningful text underlying these mysterious glyphs – text that several people (at least five by my count) knew how to read and write – and that one of those people had editorial authority.

Here’s another example. The gutter of the fold-out that comprises folios 71 and 72 (above) is fragile and has been re-enforced by a strip of modern vellum to protect it from tearing (red arrows above). Unfortunately, that strip obscures some of the text in the online image of f. 71v (detail below left, rotated 90° counter-clockwise). I was able to image a bit more of the hidden text yesterday (detail below right).

Folio 102r, detail (photo by LFD)

The same is true on f. 102r (left), where a crease in the parchment has obscured some of the glyphs in the online image. My image captures some of the hidden glyphs.

These images represent just a few of the outcomes of yesterday’s research trip. I took hundreds of high-magnification images that will help me further understand the writing system and the distinctive characteristics of the various scribes.

Why should those few extra glyphs matter? And why does it matter how many scribes there are and how they collaborate across the manuscript? Because in order to make any progress understanding what (if anything) this manuscript has to say, linguists, cryptologists, and computational analysts need data, and every bit of data helps. I’m not trying to “decode” the manuscript myself – I am not a linguist, or a cryptologist, or a data analyst. I am a paleographer and a codicologist, applying my thirty-years of experience studying hundreds of medieval manuscripts to the conundrum that is the Voynich Manuscript. I hope that my work will help facilitate the work of others and that interdisciplinary collaboration will eventually lead to understanding.

In that spirit of interdisciplinarity, I’ve been collaborating for more than a year with a group of linguists, cryptologists, and experts in computational analytics – most of whom are affiliated with the University of Malta – all of us bringing our particular skillsets to the problem of making sense out of the Voynich Manuscript. As the only humanist in the Zoom Room, my role in this working group is to represent the manuscript itself, to advocate for the object and its objective reality. As a paleographer, my expertise is in the graphic properties of Voynichese. As a codicologist, I’m there to remind my colleagues about the unusual structure of the manuscript and ensure that they take into account the implications of both structure and writing system in their linguistic and computational analyses (for an introduction to these properties and some basic linguistic analyses, see this video interview with myself and Yale University Professor of Linguistics Claire Bowern, or read my recent article in Manuscript Studies).

Several members of this working group (including myself) will be presenting new research at an upcoming Voynich conference, taking place online from 30 November to 1 December, 2022. For more information and to attend (or to submit an abstract for consideration), click here.

We hope to “see” you there!

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Fragmentology in the COVID-era Classroom

The Flight into Egypt, Walters Art Museum, MS W.188, f.112r

It’s been a rough few years, friends. We have all been through so much during the pandemic, and for students and teachers the pivots and policies have been particularly difficult and frustrating. Trying to stay safe, learning to teach online, dealing with trauma and loss, getting used to social-distanced and masked pedagogy, in addition to the usual pressures of teaching and learning. It was a particular delight, then, to see my extraordinary Simmons University School of Library Science students here in Boston make their way through this semester’s course “The Medieval Manuscript from Charlemagne to Gutenberg” not only with resilience and steadfastness, but with enthusiasm, intellectual curiosity, and the joy of discovery.

Stony Brook University, “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts,” no. 31

As always, the final project for my class this semester was a digital reconstruction of one of the Books of Hours dismembered by Otto Ege in the first half of the twentieth century. This year, we chose the lovely ca. 1430 Book of Hours from France whose leaves became no. 31 in the Ege portfolio, “Fifty Original Leaves from Medieval Manuscripts.” Each of my fourteen students was assigned one leaf from one of the known portfolios (such as the leaf at Stony Brook University, shown at right) to research and catalogue. They had to use online resources such as the Hypertext Book of Hours to identify the text on their leaf, and then catalogue the leaf using the Fragmentarium database. Some of the students were so enthusiastic about the project that they catalogued more than the one leaf originally assigned to them. I did some as well, so that we could work with as many leaves as possible.

One of my students took extraordinary initiative and spent hours searching the internet to try to find more leaves. She found several, including a calendar page at Dartmouth College and a miniature that was recently sold by the Manhattan Rare Book Company. Both of these are rare and important finds for an Ege manuscript. Generally, it is very difficult to definitively identify miniatures from the Ege manuscripts, since they were sold separately from the text leaves that are found in portfolios and often are framed so that the text side is not visible, making it quite difficult to determine if the miniature came from the target manuscript. In this case, however, the bookseller had reproduced the text side as well, so we could tell for sure that this miniature was from our manuscript. The miniature (below) was a depiction of King David at prayer, the opening of the Penitential Psalms section of the Book of Hours. The gold ring surrounding the vines in the lower margin is a motif that appears in other leaves, and may suggest that the book was commissioned to commemorate a marriage.

I wrote to the bookseller to ask for more information, and he informed me that the miniature had just been sold to a private collector in New York City. He contacted the owner on my behalf, and the new owner emailed me directly to let me know that he in fact owned THREE miniatures from this manuscript! In addition to David at Prayer, he had acquired miniatures of the Annunciation (Matins, Hours of the Virgin) and the Nativity (Prime, Hours of the Virgin).

In the meantime, following the trail left by Scott Gwara in his entry for this manuscript from his monograph, Otto Ege’s Manuscripts ((Cayce, SC : De Brailes Publishing, 2013), pp. 128-129), the same student tracked down a copy of Judith Oliver’s catalogue of a now-defunct collection formerly belonging to the Boston University School of Theology, where four miniatures, including the Annunciation and the Nativity, were illustrated.

Judith Oliver, Manuscripts Sacred and Secular (Boston: Endowment for Biblical Research, 1985), pp. 58-59 (no. 97, figs. 20-23).
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Acc. 56.27

Gwara recorded a miniature as well, this burial scene belonging to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that was purchased from Ege’s widow Louise in 1956. Now we had SIX miniatures to work with, two of which are untraced (the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi, shown at right above). There are almost certainly several more miniatures that have not been located, completing the series for the Hours of the Virgin (the Visitation, the Presentation, the Flight into Egypt, and the Coronation of Virgin). There may also have been one or more miniatures illustrating the Gospel Readings that would have followed the calendar. With so much evidence, an art-historical analysis was possible. A group of students worked together to craft this stylistic description:

“Marginal rinceaux and painted line fillers, smallish acanthus leaves on miniature pages only. Margins also include gold trefoil and red, blue, and green flowers growing on the rinceaux. Rinceaux often seems to “sprout” out of the text, usually from a single gold initial or line-filler. Borders on recto and verso are mirrored for efficiency. Some leaves show a gold ring motif among the rinceaux. Miniatures with gold U-borders with flowers/ leaves in red and blue. Continental color palette: Blues, purples, jewel tone & continental design: botanical, leafy, organic. Miniature composition similar to Bedford Master Workshop (see Oliver, pp. 58-59), Dunois Master Workshop, and occasionally elements of Boucicaut Master Workshop (as suggested by Sotheby’s).”

[it is important to note that of the five other non-portfolio leaves identified by Gwara as coming from this manuscript, upon inspection only the Memphis leaf could be affiliated with Ege 31; the other four are from a different manuscript entirely]

In the end, we identified a total of thirty-seven leaves of this manuscript. After each student had catalogued their leaf/leaves in Fragmentarium, we then worked together in class to use Fragmentarium’s IIIF-sequencing functionality to digitally recreate the manuscript:

https://fragmentarium.ms/overview/F-f25b

While some students were scouring the internet for additional leaves, others were conducting codicological research. One student selected two leaves at random to catalogue – from Massey College at the University of Toronto and the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, Connecticut – that turned out to be consecutive. Several other students identified formerly-consecutive leaves, and we even found eight leaves in a row. These consecutive runs, combined with evidence such as surviving catchwords on several leaves, allowed us to partially reconstruct several quires (using an innovative and intuitive resource called VisColl). In those three quires, we identified four pairs of formerly-conjoint bifolia, highlighted in green above. Yale University’s Beinecke Library preserves a still-conjoint consecutive bifolium from the manuscript in its portfolio. Other pairs were reconstructed using textual and codicological evidence. The catchword on the verso of the leaf at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, for example (below left), indicates that this bifolium was the outermost of its quire (L9/L16 in the diagram above). In other words, each of these pairs of leaves were once attached to one another at the gutter as a single sheet of parchment, folded in half and sewn into the quire. When Ege dismembered the manuscript, he disbound the quires and split the conjoints. These pairs of leaves haven’t seen each other in nearly a century. Below, the leaf at Harvard University’s Houghton Library is virtually reunited with its former conjoint, now at the University of Saskatchewan, nearly 2,300 miles away.

We have analyzed art historical evidence and codicological evidence. What about the contents? The surviving leaves preserve portions of several sections of the manuscript: the Calendar, Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross, Penitential Psalms, and the Office of the Dead. While we did not recover the critical pieces of liturgy that are usually used to determine Use (the antiphon and chapter reading for Prime and None of the Hours of the Virgin, as well as the Matins Responsories of the Office of the Dead), independent research by several students helped identify the origins of the manuscript. One student determined that the particular hymn used on the page she had been assigned seemed to indicate that the manuscript was for the Use of Paris. Another found that an atypical Psalm used at Vespers for the Office of Dead was also suggestive of Use of Paris. The few Matins responsories recovered for the Office of the Dead were consistent with Paris Use and, after a careful in-class analysis of the saints named on the calendar page, we felt we could confidently identify this manuscript as made for the Use of Paris.

That’s as far as we’ve gone so far. We spent several hours conducting provenance research in the Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, trying to identify any pre-Ege sales of this manuscript (with help from provenance-researcher-extraordinaire Laura Cleaver and the always-helpful reference librarians at The Grolier Club Library), but we haven’t found it yet. The dimensions of the manuscript (190 x 160 (107 x 68) mm) are fairly typical, as is the number of lines (15), making it difficult to definitively identify this manuscript in an early sales record.

The semester is over, but the work continues. The linked-open data model and interoperable image sequencing reflect best digital practices. This means that if more leaves are identified, they can easily be added to the reconstruction, and if I ever do manage to find a sales record that seems to represent this manuscript when it was whole, I can update the Fragmentarium record accordingly.

This annual project accomplishes many of my goals for my students, all of whom are pursuing a Masters of Library Science: craft clean, consistent, linked data; work with digital images in a IIIF environment; analyze paleographical, art historical, and codicological evidence to determine the date and place of origin of a medieval manuscript; understand how to research and work with Books of Hours, which are among the most common genres of medieval manuscripts in North American collections; and work collaboratively. Each student’s record has its own persistent and citable URL, as does the reconstruction. The work of previous years can be found here, and for more information about other scholars who are doing reconstructions and studies of other Ege manuscripts, see this blogpost.

I hope to take on another reconstruction with Simmons students next fall, hopefully in a post-pandemic world. In the meantime, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy, and Healthy, New Year.

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Filed under Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Books of Hours, Codicology, Fragmentology, Houghton Library, Medieval Manuscripts, Otto F. Ege, Paleography, Uncategorized