The Voynich Manuscript and the story of Madonna Oriente

The Voynich manuscript is quite possibly the greatest cryptological puzzle of all time. It is written in a script that nobody has ever seen before. It contains many images of plants which we have yet to identify. It contains recipes to make God knows what. And what the hell is this?

We have yet to figure out who wrote the book, what language the book is in, or even what the book is really about. This is a puzzle that has literally stumped centuries-worth of the brightest historians, cryptographers, and amateurs alike.

Out of all the mysteries that surround this book, one stands out above all others. Who wrote this book and why did they go to so much effort to hide the content of their book? I think we can safely rule out the possibility that they did so to leave a puzzle for cryptology geeks 400 years later. Somebody had something they wanted to hide.

Everyone has a favorite theory. This is mine.

Witchcraft!

malitia

Did you think that witches were just figments of the medieval imagination? Until relatively recently, most historians would have agreed with you. And up until the latter part of the 15th century, the church agreed with you as well.

But no, witches were real. They were hardly the distorted images of satan-worshipers that the Catholic church would present them as. There’s one particular story of witchcraft that I think is relevant to Voynich.

The Lady of the East

Let’s venture to a particularly obscure corner of history. The year is 1384. Columbus wouldn’t sail the ocean blue for another hundred years. The black plague was finally beginning to settle down. The Renaissance was about to begin.

In his book Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, Carlo Ginzburg tells the story of a woman named Sibillia, wife of Lombardo de Fraguliati, who was tried by the Catholic Inquisition in Lombardy . Under interrogation (which likely included copious amounts of torture), Sibillia confessed to “enormous crimes” and was branded a “manifest heretic”. What were these crimes?

Sibillia told of her meetings with a mysterious lady named Madonna Oriente, the Lady of the East. Oriente would make predictions that always came true. Every Thursday night they would commune with all kinds of animals, except for asses.

Witches_add_ingredients_to_a_cauldronIt turns out that she wasn’t the only member of Oriente’s society that was on the Inquisition’s radar. Another woman, Pierina, wife of Pietro de Bripio, would tell much the same story, but with more details added. Not only were asses banned from the meetings, but foxes were banned as well. Even the dead would attend these meetings.

So what does all of this have to do with Voynich? There’s one particular section of Pierina’s story that account that speaks out to me:

To the members of the society Oriente teaches the virtues of herbs (virtues herbarum), remedies to cure diseases, how to find things that have been stolen and how to dissolve spells.

If there’s one thing that the Voynich manuscript has, it is herbs and remedies. And I don’t think it would be a stretch to pre-suppose that the manuscript has instructions to find things that have been stolen and how to dissolve spells. I think that Voynich is about virtues herbarum. In other words, it’s a witches’ spell book and potion book.

witches
Three Witches by Hans Baldung, c.1514

If you accept that as true, it would seem as though the reason for Voynich’s encryption is obvious. This was a book written by witches, and they must have wanted to hide what they did from the church. Or did they?

Though Pierina and Sibillia would eventually be executed, it would take the church a good 6 years to actually do so. They were initially sentenced to a penance and jail time. So what is the next line in Ginzburg’s tale?

But all of this must be kept secret.

I don’t think that purpose of Voynich was to prevent persecution. I think it was a matter of protecting trade secrets.

So then where’s the proof? It turns out that Pierina and Sibillia’s story is very common. We see examples of women who tell the very same story over and over again across the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. There are a few themes that you see repeatedly in these stories, which is that the Goddess is either surrounded by animals (as was the case with Oriente) or sometimes the Goddess has characteristics of an animal (as was the case with the cult of Richella which would pop up later).

Do we see this anywhere in Voynich? Well yes, actually. We do see this one place:

madonna

This image appears in the “Biological” section of the manuscript, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. But that’s a discussion for another time. In my next post, I hope to discuss this most strange part of the Manuscript.

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