A while ago, Watkins Publishing kindly sent an advance copy of their oncoming Voynich book for me to review. The Voynich Manuscript: The Complete Edition of the World’ Most Mysterious and Esoteric Codex is set to be released on August 15, 2017.
The volume contains:
- Foreword by Stephen Skinner, who has written more than 40 books on Western esoteric traditions.
- Introduction by Rafał Prinke and René Zandbergen
- A reproduction of the manuscript.
Readers may remember that Yale published a similar reproduction as recently as November 2016. So why another one already? Rene Zandbergen explained that, since Watkins is known in the esoteric world, this is the market that is being targeted: people who don’t know much yet about the manuscript and are attracted to its mysteries.
Foreword and introduction
Dr Skinner’s foreword starts with a discussion of a number of popular early Voynich authorship theories (Dee, da Vinci) and their problems, followed by an overview of the manuscript’s various sections.
Skinner then explains his theory that the manuscript was written by a Jewish author, but experienced Voynich researchers might find this part somewhat disappointing. I was looking forward to reading his opinion since his starting point is the fact that there are no, or very little, christian influences in the manuscript’s imagery. This is an excellent observation, and a fact which is too often ignored, but unfortunately it goes downhill from there.
I see two major problems with Skinner’s theory that the manuscript was written by a Jewish author:
- He relies mostly on Edith Sherwood’s very questionable plant identifications and her even more questionable deciphering methods. Sherwood may have once been regarded as an authority by some, but current researchers are increasingly questioning her results. At the moment, there is no reason to assume that her work can be used as a reliable basis for theory building.
- One of Skinner’s main arguments is that most of the “bathing” human figures are completely naked women “with their sexual organs completely visible” (p.12). Hence, he reasons, quire 13 could depict a Jewish bathhouse (mikvah) since this was “one of the few structures where women would wash together completely naked”. It is true that Jewish women washed together naked and that mikvoth played an important role in their rituals. But this is, again, a very thin basis to assume that the Voynich was illustrated by a Jew.
This proposal surely raises a lot of questions:
- How likely was a medieval Jew to illustrate a manuscript with five hundred naked women (including shameless display of breasts and genitals)?
- How do the Voynich drawings compare to other medieval illustrations of Jewish bathing practices?
- And what about archaeological evidence? What did mikvoth look like? Is this reflected in the VM?
In short, Skinner’s proposal is a typical Voynich theory. Starting from a plausible idea or observation, but then ignoring the rest of the manuscript and, especially, cultural norms and stylistics.
The introduction by Prinke and Zandbergen focuses on those things which are known with some certainty about the manuscript. Its physical description, traditional division into the various sections. Then the known history of the manuscript, with the fascinating Baresch-Marci-Kircher correspondence and the equally interesting story of Wilfrid Voynich himself. Finally, there is a short discussion of some more recent efforts to crack the manuscript’s text and imagery. All in all, this introduction will provide newcomers with more than enough background to dive into the manuscript itself.
The color prints are based on the Beinecke scans, which means that they are of a high quality. I like that quire and bifolio information is printed under each image. This is something I’ll certainly be using when I write about things like folio order.
One feature which I found disappointing, though, is that the Voynich’ infamous foldouts have been cut to single pages. The Yale edition was praised for its inclusion of real foldouts, so it’s a shame that this typical feature is missing from the Watkins version.
On the other hand, Yale’s is $9 more expensive at the moment of writing this post (July), so if you’re strapped for cash and you really want a Voynich Manuscript, Watkins is the way to go.
While Watkins’ The Voynich Manuscript won’t offer any new insights to long-time Voynich enthusiasts, it does a good job of introducing newcomers to the manuscript’s historical background. This edition targets those who appreciate occult mysteries, and a mystery it certainly remains. But above all, it is a good reproduction of a wonderful manuscript, which I happily add to my library.