Margaret Murray, Murder, and Witchcraft: Archy Fantasies podcast is new to me but this episode and a glance through the related blog suggests inquisitive skeptics are in charge. In this episode the hosts discuss archaeologist/folklorist Margaret Murray and her search for her theorized witch-cult. Though her theory was ultimately disproved she had a formative influence on modern Wicca, and at age 87(!) involved herself in a murder investigation in search of members of the “old religion”.
Because you can’t write about John Dee for very long without addressing the Voynich Manuscript, the “book nobody can read”.
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).
As such, speculation on what the text might be and by extension what the book is about runs rampant. CipherMysteries.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
After that came the long drive home. A busy day, but well worth it!