Saturday, 12 January 2008

Comets in Quire 20...?

After my recent (and unexpectedly extended) foray into Voynich-themed novels, I thought it would be a good idea to get back to proper manuscript research.

One small feature I've been mulling over is the "starred paragraphs" in Quire 20, the final gathering in the VMs (the one which famously ends with the "michiton oladabas" page). I posted about this section not long ago, discussing Vladimir Sazonov's suggestion that it might originally have formed some kind of 365-paragraph calender. But what I'm thinking about here is the possibility that the "tailed stars" used to mark the start of each paragraph here were actually comets, chosen on the basis of a Latin pun.
Back circa 1500, the named structures used for written works were often slightly different from now. What we moderns would call a chapter or part, would typically have been called a book: while a modern subsection (a block of continuous text with a descriptive header) would typically have been called a chapter, or capitulum (literally "diminutive caput", "little head"). Ironically, the short punchy chapters in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" are closer in spirit to this medieval world of text than most other modern books.

What we therefore see in Quire 20 is what I think would have been understood in context to be not so much a series of paragraphs, but a series of "chapters" within a "book". With this in mind, might those little shapes that have usually been called the "stars" or "tailed stars" be instead iconic comets?

Our word "comet" originally came from the Latin cometes, which itself was a loan-word from the Greek kometes, "wearing long hair" (it's in Aristotle). Similarly, the Latin term crinis means hair, or tail of a comet, or rays of sun: and so a comet may be called a stella crinita, a 'hairy star' (yes, really!)

So, when I now look at the starred paragraphs, I do think that the "stars" there are very probably comets comprised of a little head (capitulum) and a deliberately hair-like tail. This kind of punning visual / Latin iconographic word-play would be consistent with the view of the VMs as a high-culture cipher: but perhaps seems a little too ornate or too conceptually 'fancy' for a mere hoax.

Modern astrologers (even such mainstream ones as Jonathan Cainer) are still sent into a tailspin (if you'll forgive the pun) by comets, seeing in them omens for, well, all sorts of things, such as the death of Benazir Bhutto, etc: which is, of course, no different to ancient, medieval and Renaissance astrologers alike, for whom comets had the power to invite speculation, wonder, and fear.

But for the VMs, where should this research thread go next? As far as art history goes, Giotto famously depicted the 1301 appearance of Halley's Comet in his Adoration of the Magi: and if you subscribe to a likely Quattrocento origin for the manuscript (as I do), I would guess that there is a lot more to find in Roberta Olson's (2000) "The Florentine Tondo" (ISBN10: 019817425X, ISBN13: 9780198174257, £85) - pricy (but supposedly fascinating). I would also suggest "Cometary theory in Fifteenth Century Europe" (Kluwer, 1985, also £80 or so) by Jane L. Jervis, and Lynn Thorndike's (1958) "Some tracts on Comets 1456-1500" (in Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences 11 (1958) pp.225-260), none of which I've seen myself but perhaps will one day soon (if I spend a day at the BL, or win the lottery). I've also read that Galileo discussed (in his "Il Saggiatore") the three comets that were seen in 1417: and so there was presumably much debate on this at the time.

I don't know: it seems possibly too lightweight an issue to devote a great deal of time to. And yet there is much in the VMs that points to astronomical and astrological thinking - enough that I can empathize with Enrique Joven's novel "Castle in the Stars", where the VMs is imagined as being part of that general tradition (No! Enough with the novels, already!). Maybe there is enough there after all...

No comments: