Manuscript Mayhem in Washington, DC!

2014-12-06 15.27.35_Washington, DC, is a hot spot for manuscripts these days with two exciting exhibitions each playing host to incredible examples: one of four remaining 1215 copies of Magna Carta and the uniquely mysterious Voynich Manuscript. I’ve been able to visit both exhibitions and am pleased to tell you why you should do the same.

First up: Magna Carta, which is totally DC’s kind of manuscript (government nerds…). You may be saying, “Wait! Doesn’t the National Archives have its own Magna Carta? Why do I want to look at another one?You’re quite right, the National Archives does have one (go see it! They also have a nifty computer explorer thingy that answers questions that have been niggling you for years, like how to make iron gall ink.). The Archives copy dates from 1297, during Edward I’s reign. But let’s backtrack.

In 1215, long story short, King John was struggling a bit. To put it mildly. He’d lost most of the English crown’s land on the continent, which meant he spent all of his time in England, where he thoroughly annoyed the barons. At Runnymede, in order to save his crown, he signed Magna Carta, which among other things set out rules for taxing the nobles. Some copies were made, then John scampered away and, incidentally, asked the Pope to void the whole thing. Four of those original copies remain.

The bit they don’t tell you in American government classes is that Magna Carta didn’t really mean much at the time. It was only later in the thirteenth century that it began to have an impact. Kings began re-issuing it in order to coax Parliament into meeting. In fact, the 1297 version (which, by the way, varies significantly from the 1215 language) was the first entered into the official state papers of England. The whole process slowly grew on the Brits, then caught the eye of those looking to kick them out of America (who tactfully ignored some of the bits about women and Jews).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's letter to the Library of Congress.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s letter to the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress’s exhibition does a nice job tracing both the document and its impact on the US. This is the Lincoln Cathedral’s copy, which they’ve owned since the thirteenth century and which was loaned to the Library of Congress previously in 1939. When World War II began, it was deemed safer to keep it in the US than to send it back, so it stayed first at the Library on display, then in Fort Knox when documents like the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were evacuated from DC. Definitely catch the charming letter FDR wrote to the Library about its plan to keep Magna Carta “in the safe hands of the barons and the commoners.”

The Lincoln Magna Carta along with the other three survivors of the 1215 issue will be on display together next year in London for the 800th anniversary. The Metro fare to Capitol South and Smithsonian will be cheaper. If you visit the Library of Congress, also be sure to conduct a scavenger hunt through Thomas Jefferson’s library and pay your respects to the Gutenberg and Mainz Bibles.

Second stop: the Voynich Manuscript. The book is on display as part of an exhibition about ciphers and the Renaissance. The curators pair this historical narrative with the story of William and Elizebeth Friedman, cryptographers in the American military during the twentieth century who met when both were hired by a textile tycoon to analyze Shakespeare for codes–the kind of pursuit they continued to enjoy throughout their lives. During World War II, William Friedman helped break Japan’s Code Purple and developed the SIGABA encryption machine (similar principle to Enigma but never broken and only declassified in the 1990s). After the War, they convened two working groups on the Voynich Manuscript with no major breakthroughs.

So first, what is the Voynich? It’s a manuscript on parchment dating to the early 1400s, likely from Northern Italy. The writing is entirely in an unknown script; the book also includes illustrations, particularly with anatomical or botanical focuses (skim the whole manuscript thanks to Yale’s digitizing).

Since its creation, it shows up on two occasions: In the 1660s in the hands of Renaissance polymath Athanasius Kircher (who was asked to explain what it was and couldn’t) and in 1912, when book dealer Wilfred Voynich acquired it from Jesuits in Rome. Voynich failed to sell the manuscript and it was donated to Yale’s Beinecke Library in 1969. It has never been loaned and is only rarely on display, so its appearance at the Folger Shakespeare Library is not to be missed.

The main draw of the Voynich, of course, is the uncracked puzzle of what the text means. The exhibit includes William Friedman’s guess, which he encoded in an article about Chaucer then left the key in a sealed envelope not to be opened until after his death, of course.

But there are also puzzles offered by the book as an object. The parchment used wasn’t of the best quality but was carefully prepared. Analysis of the parchment dates it to the fifteenth century, and analysis of the pigments hasn’t contradicted it (but is not enough to confirm). More than a dozen pages fold out to offer larger pages–the only example of fold-outs in a parchment manuscript a collection of curators from the Folger and the Beinecke could think of. Paleographical (old handwriting) analysis suggests two people may have written the text.

So who were they? What resources could they tap? Why did they invest so much time in the object? Theories abound–if you want to try your hand, see the book in person, then start here (and set out at your own peril).

Magna Carta: Muse and Mentor is on view at the Library of Congress through January 19, 2015. Please note the Library is closed on Sundays. Decoding the Renaissance is on view at the Folger Shakespeare Library through February 26, 2015.


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