Posted on 15 March 2015 by Anton Alipov

Categories: Art, History

God's Thingum: On Voynich f116v, Line 0

The reader may remember that in my 2014 article I proposed the exact reading of the annotation of the “bulbous object” in f116v to be the MHD (or perhaps rather FNHD) “lab”, and, respectively, the bulbous object itself to be a rennet-bag. This assumption of a German annotation correlates well with the fact that color codes spread here and there throughout the VMS also fit the notional “German” language (insofar we can use the term “German language” for the 15th century): “g” for grün, “p v” for “purper var” (purpur-farbig), and “rot” speaks for itself. Taken together, the alleged colour codes corroborated by the plants having been coloured accordingly, and the alleged “lab” corroborated by the pictures of a rennet-bag and a ruminant, seem to me a strong evidence towards the “German” context of the VMS, as well as towards the “German” origin of its author (again, insofar we can use the term “German” in relation to the medieval Europe). One can hardly deny that the author (or the scribe, if you wish) of this supposedly enciphered work should have had some particular reason to choose German out of many languages available at the time – for at least some of his marginalia.

In this article, the assumption of the “German” context of the VMS is developed further and applied to line 0 of f116v.

Line 0 does not attract as much attention of researchers as the “Michitonese” lines 1 - 3 do, however, the proposed transliterations have been many, based on a number of assumptions and supposed languages [1 - 5]. However, neither of them has been accomplished and convincing. Let us see if we can add to this research effort.

Line 0 is comprised of three parts separated with distinct spaces (Fig. 1). Further we consider those parts (counting from left to right) in separate sections.


Fig. 1. Line 0 of f116v

 

1. Line 0, part 1

Line 0 greets us with difficulties from its very beginning. Without any previous idea, it is even not clear whether it begins with a single 8-letter word or with two words (a 3-letter one and a 5-letter one), because the space after letter 3 is not certain.

The first letter might be a “p” or an “u/v”. An argument against “p” is its “angular” appearance, as compared with “p” in “portas” (line 1). However, this might be attributed to the fact that the folio’s surface is not perfectly flat in this place at the edge, which introduces distortion into the scan. An argument against “u/v” is its long tail (partly faded out), which might be attributed only to the ink having seeped downwards due to the folio being situated on the sloped desk. I believe it is more likely “p” than “u/v”, specifically do to this “tail issue”.

The second letter is certainly an “o”.

The third letter manifests itself as an “x” (like “x” in “marix”, “morix” and “vix”, line 2), although this is not certain, because the letter is blotted. In the case of its being not an "x”, the next candidate seems to be “r”.

The fourth letter is certainly an “l”, and the sixth is a “b”. The fifth and the seventh might be “c” or “e”. Sequences like “lcbc”, “lcbe” and even “lebc” seem unlikely. So the natural reading is “e” for both letters №5 and №7.

The eighth letter is again uncertain, and might represent “r”, “n” or “t”. It is not exactly like “r” or “t” in “portas” (line 1). For “n” we do not have a clear reference, but “m” could stand as such, and the supposed “n” does not match the shape of “m” in “mich” perfectly. So we have:

leben,

leber,

lebet,

all three of which are valid words in German. Moreover, “vorleben” and (I suppose) “vorlebet” are valid words too.

In the presence of these options, exotic readings like “Liber” proposed by Esther Molen [3] look too artificial, and letter №5 is certainly not an “i”. I also remember someone suggested "liber" for "book" (Latin “liber” = “book”), but the person writing a book would certainly distinguish “liber” from “leber” (German “leber” = “liver”).

The MHD word “pox” is found in Lexer [6] as well as in the Deutsches Wörterbuch (DWB) by the brothers Grimm [7].

As Lexer suggests, “pox” = “bocks” and is often used in “Fastnachtsspielen” (carnival games) of 15th century. “Bocks”, according to the same Lexer, is genitive for “boc” (“Bock” = “tup” or perhaps “goat”, also having figurative meanings like “stubborn person” etc.), and also it is an euphemism for “gotes”, in which role it is equivalent to the NHDpotz”. In turn, “gotes” is genitive for “got”, which may stand for “God” (the christian god) or for pagan god or idol.

Now, therefore, we have “pox leber” (God’s liver) or “pox leben” (God’s life) as our best matches.

The reading “pox leber” has long been discussed (see e.g. [4]), but unfortunately with totally wrong conclusions. This, I presume, is due to the fact that “goat’s (or sheep’s) liver” looks far more promising to a modern reader than “God’s liver” (what sense is there in “God’s liver”?), especially due to the picture of a ruminant in the “lab” section of f116v. So, notwithstanding that there is no sound evidence of the “lab” section of the folio being interrelated with the line 0 marginalia, researchers are tempted to link the word “pox” and the picture of the ruminant to each other, and from there the misleading trail starts.

Applying a systematic approach instead, one finds out that from the perspective of medieval Europe, “God’s liver” is more suggestive than “goat’s liver”. In DWB we find some interesting context examples, such as:

dasz euch pox leber schend!

pox marter!

pox glück, schau wie der stattknecht hauffen // mit latern dort auffer lauffn!

etc.

It appears that the reference to “pox” and expressions like “pox something” - this "something" being anatomic objects (pox leber – God’s liver, pox pauch – God’s stomach, pox haut – God’s skin, pox grind – God’s scab), corpse (pox leichnam), passions (pox leiden, pox marter) etc., – represent the natural element of the medieval European culture: blasphemous swear. The doctoral thesis of Gerd Schwerhoff [8], section 4.1.4, provides insight into this cultural phenomenon and numerous examples from “Fastnachtsspielen”. Schwerhoff also includes an example from Rabelais: “...po cab de bious, das dich gots leiden shend, pote de Christo…” (Gargantua & Pantagruel, vol. I, chapter 17), which vividly illustrates its international nature (note that “pox” is ultimately “gots”). I guess that “holy shit” is of the same family.

Although “pox leber” in my opinion is a better match than ”pox leben”, both expressions clearly designate the same thing – a vulgar blasphemous swear - and this partly clears the fume of solemn magic and mystery around the VMS (and the better for it!). Two possibilities suggest themselves in this light:

a) line 0 is a dedicated expression of emotion, and (given that it is observed on the very last page) maybe something like “Great God, at last I managed to finish all this stuff!”;

b) line 0 is an idle marginalium reproducing some passing thought, some folklore quote or just a minute swear unrelated to the VMS itself.

Unfortunately, parts 2 and 3 of line 0 still resist transliteration, and thus a definite conclusion is still unavailable.

 

2. Line 0, part 2

In part 2 there are three, four, or possibly even five letters representing one or two words.

I can not agree with the reading “si…” proposed by Nick Pelling [2], because f116v presents a picture common for contemporary German manuscripts with “s” like in “so” (line 3) in the beginning and in the middle of the words, and with an “8”-shape “s” in the end of the words. There is no “Savoy”-style “s” elsewhere in f116v.

Apart from that, part 2 is quite open for interpretation:

pinen

vinen

zimen

um en

um an

etc., all of which would be valid language constructs in MHD/FNHD. I would say that successful transliteration of part 2 relies heavily on decrypting part 3.

 

3. Line 0, part 3

Line 3 is also a hard nut. The “full point”-like rightmost element and the “comma”-like element before “f” both suggest punctuation. This would lead to the last word being “fei” (fairy), which with the preceding comma would have an appearance of an address (like “good morning, fairy.”). The tentative “votz” before the comma would nicely add to the overall obscene (see http://woerterbuchnetz.de/ for details), but, unfortunately, full point and especially comma are not characteristic for mid-15th century casual handwriting, if I am not much mistaken. Thus, dismissing punctuation, the last letter is likely an “r”, and the whole part 3 – a single word ending definitely with “fer” and, potentially, “ufer” (shore), “zifer” (digit) or “pfer” (means nothing). “Ufer” or “zifer” look encouraging, but combining that with all adequate alternatives for the first three letters yields nothing. “Not” (need, trouble) and “Ufer” are both valid words, but “Notufer” is not, especially in MHD when German could not yet boast all those three-storey word constructions much appreciated by those who study it.

 

4. Conclusions

a) line 0 begins with a typical medieval German obscene expression “pox leber” and thus it is most probably an emotional exclamation of some kind;

b) Given the conclusion a) above, line 0 is unlikely to be in any way related to lines 1 - 3 or to the "lab" section;

c) The parts of line 0 following “pox leber” are still open to interpretation, although the overall context narrows to MHD/FNHD and to something that would follow a swear. Additional input from paleographers and language/art historians would be most useful.

***

I like that Rabelaisian spirit emerging out of the VMS - it is so rare in scientific works of modern times. Last year there was a discussion in the comments on Nick Pelling’s blog about how surprisingly few (if any) “Christian world” elements are present in the VMS. Here we have one, and ironically it is the most ponderable of all. For what is more sound than vulgar?


References:

1. E. Sherwood. The Voynich Manuscript Decoded?

2. N. Pelling. Por le bon Simon Sint… what? - June 23, 2009.

3. N. Pelling. Esther Molen’s Voynich Manuscript f116v theory… - Feb. 03, 2012.

4. J.K. Petersen. The Voynich Last Page Text. - July 31, 2013.

5. D. Jackson. Decrypting the Michtonese on f116r. - Feb. 18, 2015.

6. Matthias Lexer: Mittelhochdeutsches Handwörterbuch. 3 Bde. Leipzig 1872-1878.

7. Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob und Wilhelm Grimm. 16 Bde. in 32 Teilbänden. Leipzig 1854-1961. Quellenverzeichnis Leipzig 1971.

8. G. Schwerhoff. Gott und die Welt herausfordern. Theologische Konstruktion, rechtliche Bekämpfung und soziale Praxis der Blasphemie vom 13. bis zum Beginn des 17. Jahrhundert. - 1996, rev. 2004.

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  1. Brian Cham · 5 April 2015, 01:54 · URL

    Maybe it’s another observer saying “Great God, what on earth is the nonsense in this book!?”
    By the way, I recommend against using Flash for your site menu as it will not work on a lot of mobile devices.

  2. Anton Alipov · 5 April 2015, 02:33 · URL

    Interesting suggestion, that’s a question for paleographers. Some characters differ, but some do not. E.g. the blotted “x” (if we try to abstract from the blot) is very similar. Or the ending of the “part 2” looks much like the beginning of “anchiton/michiton”. But yet another consideration is why write so close to the edge of the folio. I like that idea by David Jackson that the upper strip of it has been cut off. The question is when that cutting was done.

    As to the flash, yes I need to rework that, but I’m ever lazy. Those menu items are even older than this blog is :-)

  3. Brian Cham · 5 April 2015, 11:01 · URL

    Some content within the Voynich Manuscript itself is also suspiciously close to the edge, whatever that suggests. There’s one folio (can’t find it again) where the plant illustration even goes right off the page. Nick Pelling has probably written about this somewhere in his codicology posts.


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