Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Voynich Manuscript

Michal Habdank-Wojnicz, alias Wilfrid Voynich
I have been sent by its publisher a copy of The Voynich Manuscript: The World's Most Mysterious and Esoteric Codex, with Foreword by Stephen Skinner and Introduction by Rafał T. Prinke and René Zandbergen (Watkins, 2017).

I originally thought I would write a review based on what is known about the manuscript's provenance, but this has already been covered in so much detail elsewhere (such as the ManuscriptRoadTrip blog) that it did not seem worth repeating here. I should preface the following remarks by saying that I have not delved deeply into the vast literature on the famous manuscript [Wikipedia], and have therefore read it as a mildly well-informed general reader.

I am not sure what to say about the book. On one hand, it is physically and aesthetically very well produced. The Foreword and Introduction, totalling about 30 pages, seems to me to be a judiciously careful, succinct, summary of the state of research.

Every page of the manuscript is reproduced in colour, at at the bottom of every page of the new publication is a helpful quire diagram, showing where each page fits in the overall structure.

The images also include the outside and inside of the binding, from every direction. (This is now standard practise in digitisation projects, but I was recently frustrated by the British Library's online version of the calendar of the Hungerford Hours: the description of its provenance refers to a flyleaf note written by a former owner, but the binding and flyleaves, on which this note presumably occurs, are omitted from the digitisation).

Even without an introduction, this set of about 220 colour images would be very good value at the published price of £19.99 [or £15.99] / $25.95 for a hardback.

It may therefore seem that I have nothing but praise for this book. I do, however, have a couple of reservations.

First, the format of the book (26 × 18 cm) would have allowed the manuscript to be reproduced life-size (about 23 × 16 cm), instead of which the images are somewhat reduced, with the leaves shown at a scale of about 17.5 × 12 cm.

Second, although this is not an expensive book, its content is effectively all available completely free on the web: hi-res digital files are available on the Yale Digital Collections server, and the same level-headed assessment of the evidence as is found in the Introduction is presented in much greater detail on the Voynich Manuscript website of René Zandbergen, one of the Introduction's authors.

The text does not, however, include a full technical description, such as that by Barbara Shailor in the printed Beinecke catalogue (also available online), and this official Beinecke description is not even included in the select Bibliography of more than 60 titles.

Thus anyone who wants a somewhat more thorough introduction to the manuscript would probably do well to spend a little extra to buy a different publication available from the same publisher, published at the end of last year (but which I had not personally seen): The Voynich Manuscript, edited by Raymond Clemens, with Introduction by Deborah E. Harkness (available new for about £25), in which the images are reproduced life-size.

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