Some weeks ago, Lisa Fagin Davis photographed parts of Ethel Voynich’s (ELV) notebooks held at the Beinecke library, and shared them on the Voynich Ninja forum. ELV writes in a tidy cursive, but some of the letters are a bit quirky, and especially readers who don’t have English as their first language found them hard to read. Since her notes are an important part of the history of Voynich research, I joined Marco Ponzi’s initiative of transcribing them. The full transcription can be viewed here:

Ethel Voynich – Beinecke Notebooks PDF

The document contains the complete first notebook and part of the second, which was all Lisa was able to image so far. More is likely to be added later. ELV goes over each large-plant folio in order, from f1v to f31r. This means that so far, we have covered about half of all the large-plant images in the MS.

The document provides a great insight into what this type of research would have looked like in the pre-internet age. She will sometimes write down a few initial guesses, and then visit the library to see if they are good, consulting a whole range of works. At times she tries to view a live or dried specimen of the plant, consulting collections of preserved plants like the Brooklyn Herbarium. For example, about f4v she adds:

“August 1933. Bronx Botanical Library. I have examined many species of Campanula (dried specimens), and feel that this must be one of them.”

At one point she even grows a plant herself in order to study its roots and other parts. Sometimes she makes sketches of relevant manuscript illustrations, capturing their essential parts.

She did not have the VM at hand while writing these notes (she worked from a set of “Plates” that had been made) but she does retrieve it every once in a while to have a closer look at details and especially colour.

The notebooks’ pages are dynamic: sometimes paragraphs are scrapped entirely, sometimes a paragraph will criticize a previous (older) one, notes are added in margins. Little is dated, apart from additions made in August and September of 1933 (three years after her husband’s death). A few more dated additions are from April 1952. These dates suggest that the notebooks were edited over a span of two decades, though perhaps not continuously. (This means ELV was 88 years old at the time of the latest dated additions to her notebook.)

Compared to certain trends in VM research, her work reveals genuine curiosity and intellectual honesty. When a guess doesn’t work out, she rejects it and lists the reasons why. And even when a plant’s identification seems certain right away, she makes sure to check if it actually holds up and what its strengths and weaknesses are.

Here are some more thoughts I had while transcribing these notes:

  • The focus is entirely on the images, but there are rare indications that ELV also had the decipherment of the script in mind. While writing about f7v, she adds: “Some word for blood is fairly certain to be on Plate 8 [[f7v – f8r]] somewhere.” Such instances where the focus is shifted away from the imagery are very rare in these notebooks. The fact that she lists synonyms for each plant might also be related to deciphering the script.
  • ELV seems to be interested in finding certain links between the large-plants and the small-plants sections, often referring to the latter.
  • One of the two people most frequently mentioned is “Mrs. Marquand”, who we initially were unable to identify. Lisa passed the question on (via Laura Cleaver) to Natalia Fantetti. She knew that “Mrs. Marquand” was none other than Eleanor Cross Marquand, a specialist in the history of plant illustration. ELV often notes Mrs. Marquand’s proposals for certain VM plants.
  • Another person often mentioned is “Maggie”, or “M.” We do not know for certain who this is (nor do any of the people we asked), but Marco found out that Ethel had a sister named Margaret. Another possibility (though perhaps less likely) is that “Maggie” is Anne Margaret Nill.
  • The notebooks cite Erwin Panofsky once: apparently he had expressed the opinion that the little critter nibbling the leaf on f25v is a basilisk. No further details are given.
“A basilisk” – Panofsky

In the folios we have so far (i.e. up to f31r), ELV does not interact much with the more fantastical elements of certain VM plants. She tries to explain everything “botanically” as much as possible. When an image does present certain weird parts, she finds this “very puzzling”. An example is what she calls the “dragon” in the root of f18v. She takes this to be an indication of the name of the plant (as would be customary) but does not get further than that.

“There can be no doubt about the dragon…But I do not know the plant. Several quite dissimilar plants were called “dragon”, “dragon’s blood”, etc… Some were exotic, including a tree. None of those shown in Mattioli, Dodoens or Chabrey have any resemblance at all to the plant shown in this drawing.
I am not so sure; it may not be meant for a dragon, though it certainly looks like one. It is very puzzling.”

Lisa’s images cut off right before a series of strange and zoomorphic roots, so maybe there is more to come.

  • In the earlier stratum of the notes, the possibility of American plants is automatically dismissed (“exotic” plants are fine, but she does not have the same knowledge of and access to those). It is only in later notes that the possibility of American plants is mentioned. In other words, there is a period before and after O’Neill made his Sunflower claims in the 40’s.
  • She seems to especially prefer useful plants. When plants had no attested use, she is more likely to dismiss them.

Finally, I have two thoughts about the implications of these notebooks for the study of the VM:

  1. To the conspiracy theorists claiming that Wilfrid Voynich himself made the VM: please take a look at these notebooks and reconsider. These are the notes of the beloved wife of your alleged forger. They are also the notes of someone who is deeply convinced the VM is an authentic medieval document. As noted, this changes in the 40’s to include a somewhat later Colonial American period under O’Neill’s influence. The point I want to make is the following: if you say Wilfrid made the VM, you are also saying that he did not tell his wife, and left her to study his forgery as genuine for several decades, like some kind of cruel joke. [Removed badly phrased sentence.]
  2. On a more positive note, I think ELV’s notes can be a useful tool for those working on identifying the plants. Even if it is only to get an idea of what the first line of Voynich researchers used to think. Ethel consulted some of the best works and specialists available to her, and it is clear that many years of sincere research went into these notes. So for anyone looking to identify a VM plant, I would certainly recommend to have a look at the corresponding part of the notebooks.