Prop, Hoax, Tribute or Art?

If we assume, as this theory does, that the Voynich Manuscript could be an “artifact of fiction”, this still does not give a specific reason for it’s creation. I mean, the theory surmises a “what”, but not a “why”. Of course the motivation for creation is of great interest, but lack of one does not detract… mostly because the motivation could be one of several known to have driven the creation of other faux books. Among the types of books are:

  1. Prop books from stage (…and film, much later of course!), used to lend reality to a performance.
  2. Books made to look as though they came from a fictional work of literature (whether or not the actual book is represented in the literature)
  3. Hoax books meant to cheat someone for profit in some way, or simply play a trick.
  4. Art books, representing no literature, created for their own beauty. .

This list of purposes may differ from the Wikipedia definition of “fictional books”, which do not actually need to exist. Obviously, the Voynich exists. Perhaps it’s purpose may cross into the “False Documents” category, as explained, “A false document is a form of verisimilitude that attempts to create a sense of authenticity beyond the normal and expected suspension of disbelief for a work of art. The goal of a false document is to fool an audience into thinking that what is being presented is actually a fact…” .

One of the more common uses of a fake book is as a stage prop. The great playwright, Christopher Marlow, wrote The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus about 1594. It quickly became a very popular play, and created some controversy for it’s themes of demonic worship. It was first published in printed form in 1604. Key to the play are the books of Faust… most specifically, the book given him by Mephistophilis. The first actors and producers of this play must have used a prop representation of this book, because Marlow’s stage direction is clear:

MEPHIS (to Faustus): Hold, take this book, peruse it thoroughly:

[Gives book.]

The play continues:

FAUSTUS. Now would I have a book where I might see all characters and planets of the heavens, that I might know their motions and dispositions.

MEPHIST. Here they are too. [Turns to them.]

FAUSTUS. Nay, let me have one book more,–and then I have done,– wherein I might see all plants, herbs, and trees, that grow upon the earth.

and later:

Enter ROBIN the Ostler, with a book in his hand.

ROBIN. O, this is admirable! here I ha’ stolen one of Doctor Faustus’ conjuring-books, and, i’faith, I mean to search some circles for my own use. Now will I make all the maidens in our parish dance at my pleasure, stark naked, before me; and so by that means I shall see more than e’er I felt or saw yet.

So it is clear that the play required prop books of some kind. We do not know what these books were like, of course. But if they were created accurately, one or more would certainly have contained mysterious and arcane images of “…all characters and planets of the heavens…”, their “…motions”. They may have contained the prop-maker’s interpretive illustrations of “…all plants, herbs, and trees, that grow upon the earth…”.

In Ben Jonson’s 1610 play The Alchemist, the concept of ancient books of arcane lore and alchemy resurface. Jonson does not specify that a prop book be used in the performance, but we already know the concept would not be unfamiliar. The form of such a book takes here at least two forms, although perhaps, none were ever used or seen. First, as a “Book of Solomon”, much as the tomes on Bensalem were envisioned by Bacon:

“MAM. Pertinax, [my] Surly, Will you believe antiquity? records? I’ll shew you a book where Moses and his sister, And Solomon have written of the art; Ay, and a treatise penn’d by Adam —

SUR. How!

MAM. Of the philosopher’s stone, and in High Dutch.

SUR. Did Adam write, sir, in High Dutch?

MAM. He did; Which proves it was the primitive tongue. And also, as a book of alchemy, on vellum:

MAM. ‘Tis like your Irish wood, ‘Gainst cob-webs. I have a piece of Jason’s fleece, too, Which was no other than a book of alchemy, Writ in large sheep-skin, a good fat ram-vellum.

The above seems to indicate that Jonson, well versed in Greek mythology, was an adherent of Palaephatus’s argument that the Golden Fleece represented a book of alchemy. I would also make note of the fact that the character of the alchemist, Subtle, is believed based on Cornelis Drebbel. I have also read, but not been able to verify or track down the source, that some believe Drebbel may have been a prop-maker. Ben Jonson certainly knew of Drebbel and his works, and probably knew the man, personally. Jonson was one of Francis Bacon’s scribes for a time, and Bacon also knew Drebbel. In another play, Jonson makes reference to Drebbel’s perpetual motion machine at Eltham Palace. So it is interesting to me, of course, that my first suspect for a Voynich author (less so, but still on the list) was Drebbel. I do not feel he would have created it as a notebook any longer, but as a prop?

Sir John Geilgud as Prospero... with prop book

Sir John Geilgud as Prospero… with prop book

So by the time Shakespeare wrote the Tempest, and by the time the Tempest was performed, first in 1611, then at the 1613 wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick V… the concept of a prop book would certainly be a familiar one. One can speculate that such a book was “any old” book picked up for such a purpose, or that it would be blank, or none used at all… and believe me, these arguments have been presented (sometimes quite heatedly!) to me over the years. I’ve been told that it would be too expensive to create the Voynich for this purpose, for one thing. But I think the cost, if great (and I do not necessarily allow that the cost of the Voynich would have been all that great, in any case, and will have a post on this subject), I would not consider it a problem. There were vast expenditures for props and costumes for the masques and plays of the time, some with dresses costing upwards of a thousand pounds… and the great Inigo Jones designing some of them, and the sets. Francis Bacon himself arranged for his Gray’s Inn to back and support several performances. I would suggest that it would not have been at all unlikely that some effort and cost would have been put into such a prop book. But what of the books of Prospero then, in these first performances of the Tempest?

As I pointed out in the post, “The Aura of the Ancient Tome, circa 1611”, it is not known if such a prop book existed for these first Tempest performances. Shakespeare, unlike Marlowe, did not specify their inclusion. But it is also clear that the books are central to the theme of the play. Many modern performances of the Tempest have included such prop books. So I would also suggest that it would not be unlikely to find such a book in the 1611/13 performances, which some have also suggested included the actor Shakespeare in the semi-autobiographical role of Prospero. Did Shakespeare himself read the lines of Prospero, and hold in his hands a faux book, filled with faux magical symbols, plants, and other fantasy drawings? What would he have done with this book, after the performance? I do not know the earliest performance of the Tempest which included a prop Propero’s book, but there are many examples of modern ones.

Michael Hordern as Propero... with a prop book again

Michael Hordern as Propero… with a prop book again

But of course we do not know if Bacon, Shakespeare, or anyone, had conceived of a play or masque to represent The New Atlantis, so I would not suggest as a first choice that the Voynich is a prop book for that fiction. If not a prop for an unknown performance of New Atlantis, we can look at other motivations. One of these would be a hoax. I don’t favor this idea, because I have not seen any evidence that the New Atlantis mythology was ever intended to fool anyone. I would doubt that such a book would have been created to convince anyone that Bensalem was a real place… although I think the Voynich, presented as such, would have done a fairly convincing job at the time. Of course the Voynich could be a hoax created for some other purpose, or some other time, as has been suggested. But that is not within the scope of my investigation, so I leave it to others to prove or disprove.

Next I’ll move to “artifact as a tribute”, as an inspirational art form, to accompany the story. Perhaps as a gift, to Bacon or other (Elizabeth at her wedding?). Such fictional books as tributes are not unheard of in history, although I have not been able to find examples contemporary to my theories. There have been many faux Necromicrons made in deference to H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology, but these come centuries later.

Faux Necronomicon Prop Book

Faux Necronomicon Prop Book

And I found an interesting modern example of an inspired, tribute, book, created by one “Derek the Bard“. It seems to be inspired by a PC video game. Derek writes,

“Below are the first few pages I’ve completed in a prop book for my Camarilla Awakening PC, Abraxas. Its done in the style of John Winchester’s journal from, Supernatural, although I’ve written it almost entirely in gibberish Sanskrit. Most of the pictures are from a book on Chinese astrology, which I’ve altered slightly with the addition off odd symbols and the like.”

Derek the Bard's Faux Grimoire

Derek the Bard’s Faux Grimoire

Recently, as an artifact from her own modern mythology, J.K. Rowling created The Tales of Beedle the Bard. This was a book at first only described in her stories, but then created, “in the flesh”, as she envisioned it would look. It is possible to purchase a copy of this, in fact. Here is part of a review of the original, from Amazon:

“…let’s just start with one word: “Whoa.” The very fact of its existence (an artifact pulled straight out of a novel) is magical…”

I was stunned by the line, “an artifact pulled straight out of a novel”, as this had been exactly how I was envisioning the creation of the Voynich, if inspired by the fictional books in Bacon’s work. This example, of course, 400 years later… but the motivation would be virtually identical.

Faux book, "Beedle the Bard"

Faux book, “Beedle the Bard”

Even without the inspiration of a specific novel, or mythos, people seem to have a liking to the idea of a mysterious book, filled with the promise of lost knowledge, cultures, religions, sciences. Take a walk over to the blank notebook section of your local bookstore today, and you will see countless examples of faux-aged, leather covered and thong secured books, meant to evoke an ancient text or even, grimoire. Some even have alchemal symbols stamped on their covers. Never-mind that they will mostly end up with scrawled shopping lists, notes of business meeting and class schedules… the value is the rich impressions which they exude. The fascination with the mystery of ancient tomes was certainly just as prevalent in “my” time frame of 1610 to 1620, as clearly shown by the many inclusions of them in the literature and plays of the time, and the success of the fictional book, “The Chymical Wedding”. But would anyone have created the Voynich as a stand-alone work of art, a “just because”? I don’t doubt it would have been possible. As for today, there are many interesting examples of books being created as a stand-alone art form. Some more can be found here.

Books by Tim from Cali

Books by Tim from Cali

So in answer to the question “why?”, which I have so often been asked, I can with confidence answer, “Because of this, this, this, or this… take your pick.” It is clear to me, that for a very long time, the look and feel and content of mysterious books has pervaded art, theatre, and literature. And it is also clear that for various reasons, from the purely practical to the whimsical and imaginative, people will and have put a great deal of effort into creating faux books, as one-off, beautiful works of art. Based on the Voynich’s look and content, combined with the knowledge that in the time frame of my theories, and human nature’s long passion for “the art of the book”… it would have been perfectly reasonable to expect it, or a book just like it, to have been made for one or more of the purposes I have outlined. H. Rich SantaColoma.

Star Trek TNG prop book: Try explaining THIS in 400 years!

Star Trek TNG prop book: Try explaining THIS in 400 years!

I edited this, May 20, 2011, to add one of the best known cases of an art book. It really demonstrates all the features which I feel may be in the Voynich: Fantasy plants, sciences, astronomy, language and characters, events, and so on. It is the Codex Seraphinianus, written by Luigi Serafini about 1976 to 1978. I have been unable to discover if the book’s creator was aware of the Voynich, and influenced by it, or not. Interestingly it is often mentioned in context of the Voynich, but never in my context: That is, making the point that “people are people”, and like and do certain creative things. One of them is to create artistic books, for the love of it… and these books may contain imagined languages, but still be influenced by past, real and imagined, “stuff” of all kinds. Why would anyone propose that this is only a modern desire of mankind, and not something which may have occurred just as well in 1420, or 1620?

Codex Seraphinianus: Our Modern Voynich Manuscript?

Edit, March 30, 2013: I thought it would be fun to add another example I found, from an old episode (season 1, episode 8, “Civilization”), of “Star Trek: Enterprise”. They show three scanned pages of an apothecary’s book, with alien writing and plants. Below I show a screenshot of one of them.

Star Trek: Enterprise, Alien Book

Edit, December 2016: I often come across new examples, but don’t post them. But below is one from the online multi-player game, Runescape. Is it a “natural” tendency to add meaningless flourishes, when trying to impress with mystical writing?

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10 Responses to “Prop, Hoax, Tribute or Art?”

  1. a script enthusiast and casual reader of Voynich research Says:

    I wonder if analyzing the gibberish sanskrit (well, actually devanagari, i guess, as it’s technically not sanskrit (a language) if gibbereish, but rather just the script) of “Derek the Bard’s Faux Grimoire” would yield some similar results to the statistical analysis of the VMs?

    It would be interesting to see, how the unknowing mind (assuming that Derek does not know sanskrit) brings — or does not bring — structure into alien signs.

  2. proto57 Says:

    I think I see what you mean: Looking at works like Derek’s, and using them as a “control”… so see if the results match the VMs. If so, it would imply that it is possible the VMs is similarly created. (I think I just repeated you!).

    This is a good idea, because the Voynich is most often compared to the counts from works with meaning.

    Thank you for the comment. Rich.

  3. proto57 Says:

    Other examples:

    Nick's Alchemy Workbook 02

    Dave writes, “I love old dusty books that look like they came from another time containing forgotten knowledge or secrets.”

    And this really striking example, which includes mysterious characters, phony science, etc.:

  4. proto57 Says:

    Well here is another interested fiction site, based on Atlantis (not to be confused with “New Atlantis”, which this theory is about):

    Note the book of Atlantis made by the very imaginative author, who designed characters and a language for the Atlanteans… just as my theory had proposed someone had made up Voynichese for the culture of New Atlantis. People are people always…

  5. Brent Says:

    Something also is simply the scale of the pictures. When this was made, the colors may have been brighter too. Both of which seem to support the idea of it being a stage prop intended to be seen and be somewhat identifiable by an audience at some distance.

  6. ludiprice Says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the Voynich MS turned out to be an encyclopedic book of a fantasy world, one created by an author who had the passion, obsession and drive to write it, if not the artistic talent to pull it off. Looking at the MS it is obvious that a great deal of care, time and effort went into it, yet it lacks the sophistication and polish of a high end work of the time. This makes me think that it was done for the author’s pleasure only (as has been suggested), and at his own expense (which would explain why the vellum used was expensive but not top-of-the-range material. It seems to me to be a personal project, an amateurish piece of fiction, perhaps by an accomplished scribe, but not an artist.

    When I look at the MS, I’m reminded of the work of JRR Tolkien. What I see is the work of someone who was interested in world-building, in making up a universe with its own language, writing system, world, flora, fauna, mythology, creation story and legends. Tolkien invented more than one language for Middle Earth and a writing system – he created maps and drew countless illustrations. I think it possible that the Voynich author was attempting to do the same – build a world. Perhaps a sort of encyclopaedia of and from that world, such as the Codex Seraphinianus. The author created a world full of strange plants and inhabitants, and wrote a book describing its people, customs, myths and legends in an invented language with an invented script, *as if* he was a scholar from that fantasy world he himself created – somewhat like Tolkien did with Middle Earth. I’m not saying it’s true, or even that it’s what I particularly believe… But I think it’s as viable a solution as any, and it just somehow has a ring of truth to it for me.


    • proto57 Says:

      I think those are all good ideas, and I agree that much of what you say is certainly possible. Thank you for your feedback… Rich.

  7. Jan Stolz Says:

    It seems you are completely ignoring the 1635 letter from Georg Baresch to Kirtcher telling him of the strange book he found in 1633 and wondering if he could translate it. The book was found in the Prague castle not more than 200 yards from the scriptorium that the nuns used to create and copy church documents on vellum (conditioned goat skin). They were the creators of the book; they are the naked ladies who maintained and developed the hot springs (some 2,000 alone in the Czech Republic) and built the tubs and recorded the plants that had medicinal and practical uses.
    The text is in spoken old Czech or Latin.
    The book is not a hoax but a wealth of lost information.

    • proto57 Says:

      Hi Jan: The possibility that the Voynich ms. has meaning, and even, that it is Czech, is not something I feel is impossible at all. As for the Baresch letter, I also don’t ignore it… although I point out that it is a very bad description of the Voynich, in any case. As I wrote in a recent blog entry, “The 1639 Baresch letter describes a manuscript, but it is too incomplete and poor a description to be known that he meant the Voynich. The other letters to not make a physical description at all, while are describing whatever Baresch saw. But the Baresch description only mentions “plants unknown to the Germans”, “stars”, “unknown script” or language, and possible chemical symbolism. This would describe many other herbals and pharmas of the time, in many of the languages unknown to these men, at the time. Left out are the Zodiac, the baths, the nude women, the weird animals, the strange cylinders, and really hundreds of other features that would have been of great interest and importance to anyone trying to impart even a hint of what the nature of the Voynich is. Could the Baresch Manuscript be the Voynich? Yes. But stating it is the Voynich is incorrect, and based on poor evidence.”

      Thank you for your input, Rich.

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