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Posts Tagged ‘Manuscripts’

The Yale Beinecke Library has put the entire Voynich online so that everyone can see this fascinating book.  It was written in the late 15th and early 16th centuries and was once owned by Elizabeth I’s magician John Dee.  The entire book is in code, and has yet to be deciphered, though many have tried over the years.

You can look at the book here.

If you go to the site you can get all the details and see each page.  I heard about this book while doing research for The Elysium Texts Trilogy, and used many of the ideas it generated as plot devices.  The Voynich is full of plant drawings like this one:

And I thought, how strange that a Herbal needed to be in code.  Then I realized that a Herbal did not.  There were many Herbals at the time.  They were very useful books as they were PDR’s before modern medicine.  If it were not a Herbal…why all the plants?  then I saw this image:

This drawing of many ladies in a cocoon of sorts with tubes leading out of their heads to…well…another place, made me think these plant parts were not being used to cure a cough.

I had learned from my research that before there was a language of science, there was no vocabulary to describe scientific principles.  The ladies in the drawing most likely represent elements or ingredients for the recipe and the drawing is a representation like this one (not from the Voynich, but from a 17th century alchemy book):

Describing how they are combined and distilled.  Even so, it is a rich area for the imagination that I mined for the plot of the novel.  The secrecy and cryptic aspects make it fascinating.  The plant mentioned above is obviously a lily or a lotus.  These plants have certain intriguing qualities (from Wikipedia) :

Recent studies have shown Nymphaea caerulea to have psychedelic properties, and may have been used as a sacrament in ancient Egypt and certain ancient South American cultures. Dosages of 5 to 10 grams of the flowers induces slight stimulation, a shift in thought processes, enhanced visual perception, and mild closed-eye visuals. Nymphaea caerulea is related to, and possesses similar activity as Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred Lotus. Both Nymphaea caerulea and Nelumbo nucifera contain the alkaloids nuciferine and apomorphine, which have been recently isolated by independent labs.[citation needed]

These psychoactive effects make Nymphaea caerulea a likely candidate (among several) for the lotus plant eaten by the mythical Lotophagi in Homer‘s Odyssey.

Used in aromatherapy, Nymphaea caerulea is purported to have a “divine” essence, bringing euphoria, heightened awareness and tranquility.[citation needed]

Other sources cite anti-spasmodic and sedative, purifying and calming properties.

Some of the recognizable plants in the Voynich have similar attributes.  The alchemists made various elixirs for various purposes, we know that is true.  I have a copy of a book called The Elixirs of Nostradamus which is very interesting, though I noticed the text at the end of the book specifically mentioned that some of his more “dangerous” concoctions were not included.  Nostradamus travelled somewhere to gather his predictions.  His body was in the tower, but his mind was far far away.

The alchemists were very busy in their towers. How about that first image from the Voynich?  The blue circles?  I wonder what the alchemists were seeing…

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This photograph is an image of some reclaimed history.  The knife was put there for dramatic effect when I composed the picture to be a background for my blog…but there is a story behind the manuscript and the book.

Back in the early 1990’s when I has a bookbuyer I got a call from my supervisor who was out in the field looking at someone’s books.  He was very excited and said, “quick, find out what you can about 18th century manuscripts with skippets and seals and 16th century breviaries”.

Uhm.  This was like, way before the internet would answer those questions in an eyeblink.  I sat there at my desk wondering what to look for.  I picked up my copies of price guides and a book on auction selling prices.  My supervisor returned with the books and manuscripts in a wooden ammunition box.  “I have such a story to tell you,”  he said.

“This older gentleman was a soldier in Europe in the aftermath of World War II.  He is now settling his estate and moving to a nursing home.  He wanted to sell his books to a dealer in Chicago.  In Chicago he says he was treated so badly by the dealers that he picked up his books and came home.  Even though I was not able to offer him as much as they did, he said he was happier to let the books go to a booklover than to the snotty antiquarian dealers in Chicago.”

I am so happy the book folks in Chicago are uppity.  My boss continued,

“He says he was stationed in, what was in the 1940’s, Czechoslovakia.  He was patrolling a manor house with his rifle over his back, ambling through the dark and drafty corridors.  He came to inspect the library because he could see an unusual amount of light coming through the doorway.  He stood there on the threshhold, shocked.  The people inside were systematically grabbing handfuls of books from the shelves and shoveling the contents into the fireplace.  He tried to stop them, but they pointed out that they were freezing and had already burned the furniture.

“He quickly grabbed at the next handful about to be tossed into the flames, tugging at the bundle of books.  The other person would not let go until the soldier promised to trade him a carton of cigarettes for the books.  At that point the soldier handed over his smokes and tucked his treasures inside his coat.  He had no idea what he had just saved from the flames.  He was not able to stop the folks from grabbing another handful from the shelves.  When he got back to base he placed his books in the ammunition box and that is how they made their way back to the US.”

The soldier had saved a breviary from 1516.  Two manuscripts, one on vellum and one on paper from 1713 and 1738 both with skippets and seals inside.  One is the Prussian eagle.  Three other books from the 17th century were also saved, but I was not able to buy those so I do not remember them specifically.  But I whipped out my credit card as soon as I saw these and never once regretted the year or two it took me to pay them off.

I can imagine what that library must have looked like.  I try to think about starving and freezing people and how little the historical artifacts meant to them when their survival was at stake.  I like to remember the old man and how, when he was a young man, saving books was akin to saving people.  He never sold these books.  He kept them in the ammunition case for 50 years, safe with him.  But the books outlived him as they have outlived their owners for 450 years.  Now I have them (and the case too).  I have his story, which is just as valuable.  When I am gone, they will belong to someone else.

I have tried to read the manuscripts.  They are in a mixture of Latin and German. I took both languages in high school, but am not proficient in the least.  Also, the script itself is difficult.  I can tell they are legal documents.  One is most probably the record of a loan for 800 rials.  The other I cannot make out the specifics, but it is signed by the Burgermeister of Stuttgart.  The breviaria has woodblock illustrations and a pasted-in bookplate with a coat of arms as well as red ink printed for certain sections and the calendar of holy days.

It was while trying to read these wonderful treasures that I got the inspiration for The Hermetica. I imagined these books and manuscripts might contain something important that someone wrote down 400 years ago…but I was never going to be able to know what it was.  I imagined how I would feel if the books were in another alphabet or in code.  The message would be just as lost.  These treasures are interesting, but without a translator, they are silent.

This adventure in bookselling is what started the adventures of Nadira the Reader.  I am pleased to be bringing these treasures and their story to my book launch December 8.  Folks who come can look at and handle the books and feel the soft vellum.  Maybe someone there can read Old High German in manuscript and tell me the message that has been silent for 300 years and almost lost to the flames.

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