Monday, September 7, 2015

The Voynich and Childbirth

The Dangers of Childbirth
As recently as 1800, life expectancy for newborns was very low around the world. In addition, just a hundred years ago a woman was more than 70-times more likely to die while giving birth. Childbirth was thus a treacherous experience which must have been made all the more treacherous by well-meaning women like those described below and a terrible prankster who can throw his voice.
[Brother Peder told us that] in his homeland, Denmark, it is the custom that when women are lying-in the neighbouring wives come and help them to keep cheerful with dancing and uninhibited songs. So it happened that one time when a group of women had assembled for a lying-in and were intent on making a row in accordance with the country's evil custom, they
assembled a bundle of straw and formed it into the likeness of a man, with arms of straw, put a belt and hat on him, and called him “Bovi”.
Then they performed their ring-dance, and two women jumped up and sang with him between them, and between the verses, as the custom is, they turned to him with unseemly gestures and said to him: “Sing with us, Bovi, sing with us; why are you silent?”
And at once the devil, who had these wretched women in his power, replied: “Oh yes, I shall sing!” and he (not the bundle itself of course, but the devil sitting in it) screamed out and gave such a powerful yell that some of them fell down dead, while others were struck with such horror and fear that they were ill for a long time afterwards and barely escaped with their lives.
Jorgen & Axel Olrik, “Kvindegilde i Middelalderen”, Danske Studier. (1907), 175-76, at p. 175. Trans. Tom Pettitt & Leif Søndergaard. The Medieval European Stage, 500 - 1550. Ed. William Tydeman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 615-665, No.J68, at p. 659. 
Until the advent of 21st-century obstetrics, women were more or less left to their own devices regarding how to survive giving birth, or their in-laws. Nevertheless, it stands to follow that those who were generally thought to know how to bring about successful births tended to be highly valued within their communities.

According to a history of obstetrics, "prior to the 18th century, caring for pregnant women in Europe was confined exclusively to women, and rigorously excluded men. The expectant mother would invite close female friends and family members to her home to keep her company. Skilled midwives managed all aspects of the labour and delivery. The presence of physicians and surgeons was very rare and only occurred once a serious complication had taken place and the midwife had exhausted all measures to manage the complication. Calling a surgeon was very much a last resort and having men deliver women in this era whatsoever was seen as offending female modesty." An informative paper on this can be found in Volume 5 of Health Science Journal: Midwives in early modern Europe (1400-1800) by Maria Kontoyannis and Christos Katsetos.


Male Reproductive System

This little guy, one of the few males depicted in the manuscript, is holding just one thing...or not.

This may be a tactful illustration explaining to girls their impregnation.

Sponges and Feminine Hygiene

I found this from a Facebook posting:
Voynich Manuscript f66r Scottish Sponge Gum Laminaria
25 May 2012 at 13:03
"On f66r is drawn a lady in labor shown with two sponges and a pot of gum solution. She is certainly not dead but appears to be having a foot first or breech delivery as indicated by the shape of her abdomen. The tools for the procedure of cervical dilation she is undergoing are the two sponges and the pot of gum solution." More here.
According to the poster, the only other place in the world that this method was traditionally used besides Scotland was in Denmark. That's all well and good. However, the sponges above look more like typical sponges, not Laminaria, which looks more like a seaweed.

Laminaria digitalis

The sponges depicted in the manuscript may be more closely related to the Halichondria panicea or Breadcrumb sponge, an abundant sponge of coastal areas of the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. During low tide, you can find this remarkable sponge on jetties and under stones.

It usually looks like a thick bready crust with 'volcano' chimneys. Those are the excreting pores. The breadcrumb sponge has a strange smell, similar to exploded gunpowder. Halichondria panicea occurs on kelp stipes where it may dominate in tidal rapids and on other algae such as Halidrys siliquosa (sea oak). In low or variable salinity (for instance, in the western Baltic), it may be found encrusting predominantly on red algae such as Phyllophora sp. and Phycodrys sp. 

Or these may be some other sponge. The fact is that for centuries sponges have been used in feminine hygiene and for contraception.

Caliper or Another Scoop?

This looks like either a caliper to measure the baby's head or, dare I say it, a crude forceps to grasp the head and pull the baby out. That, in fact, might have been the original forceps--a caliper grabbed out of desperation. I do not doubt that Chamberlen's making his little hundred-year-old "secret" proprietary was the part that was his idea. It could also be the head-on view of another scoop or spoon.

A case made for prenatal ritual

Below are depictions of typical medieval and Roman births with the squatting stool, someone behind for support, and someone in front with a bucket of water.
Or you might, like me, be forced to give birth lying flat on your back. This is a painful, uncomfortable position that works against gravity instead of with it. Note the massive washtub with, one might guess, the proverbial hot water.

Below is an illustration from the Voynich mss. showing gravid women relaxing in the water.

Compare this to some modern water-birthing/prenatal course scenes below.
Now add to this various instruments held by the women which suggest midwifery, such as the sponge, the caliper, the vulva-like contraption, and what may be respectively symbols of the male and female reproductive systems, and it becomes clear that much of the manuscript involves birth and fertility/fecundity--making the crops grow, the rain fall, and the kids come out ok.
Indeed, the Voynich manuscript has kids.


  1. I agree and I am impressed as an MD who had used the Chamberlain forceps though I had forgotten and was going to call it Champollion. No need to explain that error here. I find the feminist reading of the Vojnics MS delightful. No one seems to discuss the ugly little runts of femininity, these caricatured gnomes who certainly do not look like Venus Aphrodite or Minoan snake goddesses nor Nefertiti. I had though the miniaturist was a faggot like Michelagniolo whose absurdly breasted Dawn od Night or Dusk or Day are the only illustrations I know of women of the last three thousand years with absurd little afterthought breasts instead of real anatomical variants.
    Yet Michelangelo knew Vittoria Colonna whose breasts must have been formidable or delightful as an Italian humanist wrote a Latin encomium praising them which is odd as only the Pope kept this widow poetess from burying herself in a nunnery and not a Hamletian one either.
    Be that as it may while she danced a Hungarian dance to a tibicen ie flute or furulya accompaniment at the papal court. Was Buonarotti present? They exchanged love poems by the dozen.
    From you I have now learnt that the Voynich women are not so ugly runt gnomes because the artist was a homo nor because he was working for Charlie or Ludas Matyi but because she was a woman and her interest was not to rival Artemisia Gentileschi nor Lempicka but to illustrate a herbalist gynecology text. Similar delightful pre-Columbian statuettes are available of childbirth in the crouching position from the Inkas.
    I have yet to find your Finno Ugric list to judge. I myself find the further I go back to epigraphic Greek and Latin the more strange coincidences I find. Yes there are such things as halieis in the gospel where Christ calls the fishermen which should be ixthus ie. fish which is KALA in Eskimo Inuktitut and KALA in Finnish and HAL in Hungarian.
    KŐ declined is köve kövem köved in Finnish it is KIVI. KIiv or Kiev is a city founded by three Finno Ugric brothers and means the same as say FrankenSTEIN or Cerveny KAMEN.
    Fiú is huios in Greek and Filius in Latin.
    HUIOS was originally a digamma F FUIOS.
    Cavalli Sforza et co. called our language NEARCTIC which is simply all the northern hemisphere languages.
    MELL breast and MILK are such cognates.
    So it is not surprising that the Finns have now jettisoned any truck nor trade with the Hungarians and search for their Sanskrit roots and the Latvians and Lithuanians for their Etruscan but Mario Alieni posits a Hungarian origin as is shown by the Székely Magyar rovásírás numbers I II III IIII V VI VII VIII VIIII X which then the Latins borrowed.
    If all languages are Nearctic then any relationship is plausible.
    Me et in Anglian dialect is ettem. I ate.
    But it is exceedingly strange that this Englishman who can contemplate Georgian Pali Sanskrit Urdu Tocharian Akkadian Sumerian Hittite Lemniscan Minoan Tamil Arabic Persian Pashtun Armenian Lydian Luvian Ugaritic affinities goes beserk when Finno Ugric is mentioned. Now that is going too far.
    Rongo Rongo and Maori as well as Maya are plausible but Finno Ugric? Nah nah.

  2. About Laminaria, according to Henriette's Herbal Homepage
    "Laminaria, in commerce, consists of dried, cylindrical portions of the stem, somewhat irregular, deeply corrugated, a half inch or less in thickness, horny in consistence, of great strength and elasticity, and breaking with a smooth, corneous fracture. The color is brown, the internal portion being paler than the outer. Its value depends upon its property of softening and swelling to several times its diameter when immersed in water, and when in contact with the secretions of the body.
    Laminaria was brought forward as a substitute for sponge tents for the dilatation of such parts as the uterine os, urethra, etc. Being of smaller size, and of greater rigidity, they are more easily introduced into small apertures and tortuous canals than sponge tents, while, on the other hand, their very rigidity renders them more liable to produce hemorrhage when organic changes occur in the uterus, or when such growths as polypi occlude the os. They readily swell to four times their diameter by the ease with which they absorb fluids, and do not so retain the discharges as to induce putrefactive changes."
    btw, I love your blog and your theory about the voynich manuscript

    1. Thanks, Marylene. This is greatly helpful. I appreciate your following the blog.