Wednesday, 26 March 2008

New Byzantium book...

Over the years I've spent looking at the Voynich Manuscript, I've become progressively more accustomed to its ways, to the point that it is no longer an enciphered grimoire to me, but simply a book we cannot as yet read. When learning to juggle, the primary force which keeps the ball in the hand is not gravity but fear: all the while people see the VMs as a dark, Necronomicon-like repository of ancient evil (basically, confusing unreadable with unspeakable), their fears prevent them from grasping what it actually is.

Yet there's still something odd about how the Voynich Manuscript is rooted, upon what it stands: specifically, it seems to my eyes to have one foot in early modern European (specifically Northern Italian, I would say) culture and the other in late medieval Byzantine culture. Though I'm still unable to satisfactorily express how this works, what I can say is that many of its herbal drawings have a structural quality that is neither medieval European (slavishly copied, overstylised, unrealistic) nor Renaissance European (emblematic rather than symbolic, abstract). The closest match I've found is in Byzantine herbals, many of which are drawn from life, but which have a kind of secret inner numericality: not Kabbalah, but topology / geometry.

I'm therefore always on the lookout for good stuff relating to Byzantium, but its 1000-year history is fascinating for many other reasons: the rich seam of inspiration the Romantic poets found in the marvellous decay of Venice was perhaps but a shadow of the irony and wonder to be discovered in Byzantium's own history.

And so a book I'm looking forward to is "Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire" by Judith Herrin (Princeton, 2007), which seems to have exactly the kind of overall historical narrative all the fragments of Byzantine history I've ever read lacked. There's a helpful review here: the hardback's £25 RRP is a little hard to swallow, for sure, but what can you do? (Errrm, wait for the paperback?)

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