SMRG Talk – The Voynich MS – Dr Keagan Brewer

The Voynich Manuscript, Dr Johannes Hartlieb, and the Emotions underpinning Gynaeco-sexual Encipherment

The Voynich manuscript is a famous fifteenth-century European illustrated manuscript whose text is written in a cipher. Its illustrations include herbs, stars, planets, anatomy, and hundreds of naked women. Evidence from within the manuscript points towards gynaecology being the central theme and Germany being the manuscript’s place of origin. German gynaecological traditions were male-oriented, meaning the cipher was probably designed to restrict gynaecological information from women.

Dr Johannes Hartlieb (c. 1410–1468), the personal physician to Duke Siegmund of Bavaria-Munich (1439–1501), wrote on all the matters suggested by the manuscript’s illustrations. Hartlieb wrote a herbal, and Bavarian translations of the Latin Secrets of Women and Trotula for Siegmund. Siegmund was unmarried throughout his life, and contemporary authors describe his great love of women, while the court was hedonistic but pious. Importantly, Hartlieb said that he would use ‘secret letters’ (verporgn puchstabn) to conceal recipes for contraceptives and abortifacients for Siegmund.

Is this the Voynich manuscript? There is a large amount of evidence to suggest it may be so. However, carbon dating performed in 2009 placed the production of the manuscript’s vellum to 1404–1438 with 95% probability, while the Hartlieb hypothesis requires a date of writing of 1460–1468. Further empirical testing is required to confirm or disconfirm the carbon dating. But even if Hartlieb was not part of the authorial team for the Voynich manuscript, the true authors must be similar to him with respect to location, emotions, intellectual interest and expertise, attitude to women, and use of secret letters.

Perhaps the most exciting outcome of examining the manuscript through a gynaecological lens is that the famous ‘Rosettes’, the fold-out diagram that is the manuscript’s centrepiece, can be correctly identified as a diagram of the female sexual and generative anatomy receiving male sperm for conception. It is therefore valuable and worthy of close scrutiny for its place in the grand arc of medical history.

This month’s talk for the Sydney Mediæval & Renaissance Group, will be held online via zoom, to start at 1930 AEST, 16 July, 2021. For login details, please contact the SMRG Secretary.