biweekly links 4-5-2017

Gore blimey! New exhibition looks at Tudor medicine: in case you find yourself in Stratford-Upon-Avon between now and December. More about “Method in the Madness: Understanding Ourselves Then and Now”;  the exhibit will include replica surgical instruments and other interactive elements.

Parchment drawing of a wheel with flasks around the edges, each flask filled with a different color.
Fifteenth century drawing of a urine diagnosis wheel from Johannes de Ketham’s Fasciculus medicinae. This and other fabulous public domain medical illustrations are available in the National Library of Medicine’s digital collections.

Henry VIII clauses and how 1539 compares to 2017: Brexit, sport, and public humiliation – the more things change, the more they stay the same, or do they? What do you think?

Does Bela Lugosi’s Ghost Still Haunt This $3M ‘Hollywoodland’ Tudor? Former residents Jon Cryer and Kathy Bates aren’t saying. Frankly, it doesn’t look all that Tudor-y to me, but the beamed ceiling is nice.

biweekly links 10-19-2016

Vampires and alchemy and murder-investigating witches, oh my!

the inevitable post

Because you can’t write about John Dee for very long without addressing the Voynich Manuscript, the “book nobody can read”.

page of medieval manuscript showing red and blue flowers and strange script
A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. Courtesy Wikipedia.

In an early draft of the novel I had Edward Kelley stumble across this strange tome in Mortlake’s library, but I ended up cutting that scene because Dee likely never owned it. Bursting further myths, he didn’t create it either – it’s carbon dated to the early 15th century, well over a hundred years before Dee’s time. Nonetheless as a mathematician and steganographer he certainly would have found it interesting. Hell, I find it interesting and I’m just an ordinary schlub.

The manuscript got its popular name from Wilfred Voynich, the bookseller who purchased it in 1912. Before that it passed through many hands and it’s origin is unclear. It currently resides in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and is available for viewing by appointment only (though they did loan it for an exhibit in DC, see below).

It has a bit of everything, from apparent star charts to plants to segmented pipes or containers to swimming naked ladies. And of course, lots of indecipherable text (available as a TrueType font, if you’re so inclined).

As such, speculation on what the text might be and by extension what the book is about runs rampant. provides a rundown of the most popular theories, which include everything from blatant hoaxing to alien tech. Certainly it seems to have elements of astrology, herbals, and possibly alchemical recipe books (all those pipes), but doesn’t resemble any of these exclusively.

Decryption obsesses many – even the NSA (PDF) took a crack at it. In 2014 Stephan Bax at the University of Bedfordshire in England deciphered ten words for plants and an astrological sign. Just last week Gordon Rugg of the University of Keele declared it a hoax; other parties disagree.

I was fortunate enough to see the real deal when it was on display in the Folger Library’s Decoding the Renaissance exhibit. Somehow I thought the fuel for so much speculation would be bigger – it’s about the size of a modern hardcover novel. The vellum shows few erasures, so someone understood the strange text well enough to write it with few mistakes. The colors are still vivid even after ~600 years, but the illustrations seem hasty and awkward, particularly the human figures.

My own take is… I don’t know what to think. I’m no cryptographer so I’m not competent to judge the plausibility of the various theories (though I’m pretty sure aliens didn’t write it). If it’s a hoax it’s a good one to fascinate so many for so long. If it’s a code I have to wonder what the author(s) were hiding. In any case, someone went to a lot of time and trouble to create it. Again, the real story is about people and their motives and perceptions.

Current research and the upcoming publication of 898 “clone” manuscripts going for $8000 each (and a Yale University Press edition priced for us ordinary mortals) should keep the Voynich Manuscript in the news (well, the news I read) and send researchers down the rabbit hole for years to come. Me, I’ll just peruse Yale’s scans and consider the fiction fodder.

a few of my favorite things

Haven’t got much news this week. Rewrites continue with the odd bit of research, and I spent much of the past weekend on the fencing strip.

So I thought I’d share a few of the books I’ve been reading (and wanting to read):

The Witch Who Came in From the Cold – I find the episodic format of SerialBox’s offerings positively addictive, and this series has two things I love: Cold War spycraft and magic.

A Day of Fire and A Year of Ravens are both collaborative novels by the Historical Fiction Author’s Co-op and both take historical events where we know the outcome (Pompeii is destroyed, Boudicca is defeated) and still create so much tension that you can’t put them down. They do this with characters so skillfully drawn that you care passionately about their fates.

David Bowie Is – I’ve never been a diehard fan but I was always impressed by Bowie’s ability to re-invent himself over and over and over again. This catalog accompanied a V&A touring exhibit of his infinitely varied career. My main interest is, of course, the costumes.

Doreen Valiente: Witch, Pan’s Daughter: The Magical World of Rosaleen Norton, and Wormwood Star: The Magical Life of Marjorie Cameron – it seems most histories of 19th-early 20th century magick revolve around men: Crowley, Regardie, Parsons. Only in the past month have learned that women were also prominent in this tradition. I gather these names are familiar to modern pagans but they’re news to me and I look forward to reading these…later. Smells like a potential research rabbit hole I can ill afford right now!

What are your current/future/favorite reads?

Field Trip! Deborah Harkness at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

Research for the WIP involves such narrow, specific subjects that it’s a rare treat when there’s a lecture or something else for the public about any of them. When I learned Books of Secrets: Reading and Writing Alchemy was only 3 hours away I knew I had to go. If this weren’t reason enough, a related lecture by author Deborah Harkness tipped the scales. So last Tuesday I day-tripped to the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia.

Book of Secrets sign

The CHFM is a little gem, not as well publicized as Philadelphia’s better-known science museums like the Mutter or Franklin Institute, but it should be. Their focus is the history of chemistry, and besides two floors of exhibit space they have an extensive library with many rare books. It supplied most of the books in the show and many of the paintings of alchemical labs. Afterwards I discovered several episodes about alchemy in CHF’s Distillations podcast archives.

“Books of Secrets” is small but excellent, and the books are displayed so it’s possible to get close and read the (often painfully tiny) text. All volumes appear heavily used; in an informal chat in the exhibit hall Dr. Harkness clarified that these books saw constant use both in and out of the lab.

soot stained book of secrets
Soot stains from hours over a burning furnace?

Alchemical laboratory equipment is situated alongside the books and paintings. I don’t understand their use any better but now I know what they look like in three dimensions!

alchemical lab equipment
Still don’t know what those triangular cups are for, or why they’re triangular
Unexpectedly, this furnace was only the size of a can of house paint.

Dr. Harkness’ lecture was impressive. I enjoy her All Saints Trilogy for its well-developed story, so full of things I like – magic, vampires, history, romance, occult weirdness! – but I discovered her research before her fiction. Managing an Experimental Household inspired me to make Jane Dee a POV character, and  The Jewel House provided much-needed context about the Elizabethan scientific community. She spoke about the intersection between the writing and reading of alchemical texts and laboratory experimentation.

Alchemical books were rare, often expensive, and full of “trade secrets”. Practitioners copied and shared their texts, and, to my vague horror, also wrote all over them. The idea of defacing a book made my inner 5th grader flinch until Dr. Harkness pointed out that they functioned as lab notebooks, full of observations, emphasis, and additions.

book with heavy marginal notes
This alchemist carefully boxed off the original text…and filled up the margins with notes.

This makes even more sense when I learned that alchemists thought of writing as a way to change reality. By Judaeo-Christian reckoning God wrote the world into existence (“In the beginning there was the word”). Alchemical experimentation was a way to read this “book of nature” and by extension understand God himself. Based on this assumption writing could be a divine act and even a means for the alchemist to transform the physical world.

A book signing followed the lecture, and Dr. Harkness was wonderfully approachable and often funny (alchemists as reliable as politicians – sounds about right)! Not only did she sign my copy of The Jewel House, but answered some of my questions about the manuscripts and recommended further reading.

Deborah Harkness signing book


After that came the long drive home. A busy day, but well worth it!